Iowa court files lawsuit against farm where Iowa teenager was murdered

The owners of a farm where a northern Iowa teenager was murdered are not responsible for failing to prevent his death, an Iowa appeals court has ruled.

The lawsuit arose after the 2016 murder of 19-year-old Thomas Bortvit in Emmett County. Lee Christensen, 18, was arrested and eventually convicted of second degree murder.

Police say Christensen faked a car breakdown to ask Bortvit, whom he considered a romantic rival, for a ride, then shot him repeatedly and left his body in a quarry.

The case generated a lot of interest in their hometown of Estherville. Christensen argued in his unsuccessful appeal that the jury had been biased against him by rumors that riots might occur if he was acquitted.

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After the trial, Bortvit’s family sued Christensen’s uncle and grandfather, who owned the farm where Bortvit was killed. The family argued that because the Christensens had previously let Lee Christensen and other youths use the farm for target shooting, they “failed to take reasonable steps to prevent the use of [the] property for the purpose of firing loaded pistols by persons under the age of 21 without supervision.”

A district court dismissed the case, and on February 16, the Iowa Court of Appeals agreed. Judge Anuradha Vaitheswaran noted in her ruling that the defendants did not provide Lee Christensen with the murder weapon, nor did they see him use it on the day of the murder.

In the plaintiffs’ view, “‘the subject matter of unlawful activity…on the premises (unsupervised pistol shooting by minors) should have imposed greater predictability of the risk of harm occurring,'” a writes Vaitheswaran. “But what evil should they have foreseen and for whom?

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The court ruled that intentional killing is not a predictable result of target shooting, even among unsupervised teenagers.

“Even if we were to assume (Christensen’s uncle and grandfather) condoned the unsupervised target shooting of a miner on the farm, a reasonable juror would not attribute the risk of deliberate shooting to a stranger to the farm among the risks arising from recreational activity,” Vaitheswaran wrote.

Lawyers for the Bortvits did not respond to messages seeking comment on the decision. A lawyer for the Christensens declined to comment because the case may still be subject to further appeals.

Court records show the Bortvits also filed lawsuits against Lee Christensen and his parents which were settled out of court. Lee Christensen is serving a 50-year sentence at Anamosa State Penitentiary and cannot be released until 2051.

William Morris covers the courts for the Des Moines Register. He can be reached at, 715-573-8166 or on Twitter at @DMRMorris.

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