Court: Judge within rights to deny worker injury trial
MADISON A judge can compel a village of Fontana snowplow driver who suffered a spinal cord injury to take a $200,000 settlement and lawfully deny his right to a trial, a state appeals court ruled Thursday.
Rock County Circuit Judge James Welker didn’t violate Russell Adams’ constitutional right to a trial in his suit against Northland Equipment because Adams waived that right by accepting worker’s compensation benefits, the District 4 Court of Appeals ruled.
Adams, of Delavan, was plowing a public parking lot in February 2009 when the plow he operated struck a raised portion of pavement.
In a brief filed with the court, Adams' attorney claimed the plow didn’t release as it should have, and Adams was thrown forward. His head struck the cab’s ceiling, compressing his spine and resulting in permanent injury, according to the brief.
Adams’ suit alleged Janesville-based Northland created an unreasonably dangerous condition by repairing its plow before Adams used it. Adding six springs to the plow affected its ability to properly release when striking a raised object, the suit contended.
Northland and its insurer, Cincinnati Insurance, denied Adams’ allegations. Northland contested whether the tension created by the plow’s springs caused the accident. Adams’ own expert didn’t determine that the tightness of the springs presented an unreasonable risk of harm to the plow operator, according to Northland’s appeals brief.
Welker refused Cincinnati’s request to dismiss the case and scheduled it for trial in February 2012.
Ten days before trial, the League of Wisconsin Municipalities Mutual Insurance—Fontana’s worker’s compensation carrier—asked Welker to order Adams to take Cincinnati’s $200,000 settlement offer.
LWMMIC was party to the suit because it had paid worker’s compensation benefits to Adams on behalf of the village.
Adams’ attorney, Thomas Greenwald of Rockford, challenged the offer as “grossly inadequate” and Welker held a hearing to determine if the offer was in Adams’ best interest.
Welker found that Adams’ case had difficulties in proving liability because he wasn’t wearing a seat belt. After determining the risk of losing at trial exceeded the chance of recovering more than $200,000, Welker ordered Adams to take the offer or have the case dismissed.
On appeal, Greenwald argued that Welker exceeded his discretion and denied Adams’ right to due process. Greenwald also requested the District 4 court ask the Wisconsin Supreme Court to directly decide the case.
The District 4 court rejected Greenwald’s request and disagreed that Welker abused his discretion. It cited a 2011 appeals decision in which a court’s authority to compel acceptance of an offer isn’t restricted when an employee accepts worker’s compensation benefits.
“Well aware that the case was valued differently by Adams and LWMMIC, the circuit court found the settlement offer to be at the upper level of what the case was worth. Then, applying the risk of a no liability jury verdict, it determined that the settlement was fair,” according to the unsigned opinion.
The Gazette was not able to reach Greenwald for comment before deadline.