State Supreme Court says Fontana snowplow driver can be compelled to accept settlement

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Kevin Murphy/Special to The Gazette
Wednesday, July 23, 2014

MADISON--A village of Fontana snowplow driver has no right for a jury trial, and an insurer and a judge can compel him to accept an injury settlement under the Worker's Compensation Act, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

By a 5-2 vote, the state's high court ruled Russell Adams' constitutional right to a jury trial was not violated by the state Worker's Compensation Act, which gives a circuit judge the authority to resolve work-injury claim disputes.

The Worker's Compensation Act is a compromise contract, according to the majority opinion, in which the worker gets a speedier, no-fault pay-off for his injuries and the employee gets immunity from being sued.

Adams' appeals argument contended that the maker of the snowplow, Janesville-based Northland Equipment, is not part of that contract and his injury claim falls outside of the worker's compensation scheme.

Adams maintained his right to a jury trial.

The majority disagreed. The Worker's Compensation Act created a new type of work injury-related claim in which equal share is given to employee and employer to pursue a claim's resolution, the justices wrote.

Adams was injured while plowing snow. The plow struck a raised portion of pavement, and he violently struck his head against the cab's ceiling, compressing his spine and resulting in permanent injury.

Adams sued Northland and its insurer in Rock County Court, alleging the plow's failure to release caused his injury. Northland disputed Adams' allegation. The village of Fontana was joined in the suit and was represented by its worker compensation insurer, the League of Wisconsin Municipal Mutual Insurance.

After Northland's insurer failed to get the suit dismissed, it offered Adams and League of Wisconsin Municipal Mutual Insurance $200,000 to settle. League of Wisconsin Municipal Mutual Insurance accepted the offer, but Adams considered it “grossly inadequate” and asked for a hearing.

Rock County Judge James Welker made no ruling on the cause of Adams' injury. Instead, he concluded that Adams' case had difficulties in proving liability because Adams wasn't wearing a seat belt. After determining that Adams' risk of losing at trial exceeded his chance of recovering more than $200,000, Welker ordered Adams to take the offer or he would dismiss the case.

The Supreme Court sided with Welker.

In a dissent joined by Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, Justice Ann Walsh Bradley wrote that the constitutional right to a jury “shall remain inviolate.”

The Gazette was not able to reach Adams' attorney before deadline.

Northland's insurer's attorney, Dustin Woehl, said the opinion was “good law,” affirming the benefits of the Worker's Compensation Act for both parties.

“The court's decision respects the Legislature's worker's compensation scheme and maintains the role of the circuit judge as a tie breaker to settle disputes,” Woehl said.

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