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Home / Wire Stories / Across the Region: Brainerd man paralyzed at trampoline park settles for $3M

Across the Region: Brainerd man paralyzed at trampoline park settles for $3M

IOWA

Court upholds firing of Iowa judge

A court has upheld the firing of a judge who helped expose improper political pressure in Gov. Terry Branstad’s administration, agreeing with an arbitrator that she lied to get her daughter state-funded health benefits.

Iowa district judge Douglas Staskal on Thursday rejected a union’s arguments that the arbitrator who upheld Susan Ackerman’s January 2015 firing was biased and lacked “substantial evidence.”

Staskal acknowledged the decision by arbritrator John Sandy was “very poorly written” and filled with spelling and grammatical errors. But he said the “core fact findings” showed Ackerman falsely certified that her married 27-year-old daughter was single to make her eligible for Ackerman’s health insurance in 2013 and 2014.

Ackerman, who worked 15 years at Iowa Workforce Development as an administrative law judge ruling on unemployment benefits cases, was charged last month with felony insurance fraud over the same issue. Her supporters have questioned whether the charges were retribution, but prosecutors have denied that claim. The 56-year-old is set to be arraigned next month.

Ackerman’s firing came weeks after she and other judges testified to lawmakers that they faced pressure from Workforce Development director Teresa Wahlert, a Branstad appointee, to favor businesses over workers in their rulings. Their concerns prompted an investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor, which ordered the state to prevent judges from facing any pressure from political appointees as required by law.

Ackerman is pursuing a lawsuit, alleging her firing was retaliation against a whistleblower. She has denied any fraudulent intent and noted that a human resources employee gave her permission to add her daughter, who was separated from her husband, to her insurance. An attorney disciplinary board ruled Ackerman’s conduct was troubling but not an ethical violation.

Separately, the state employees’ union, AFSCME, had asked Staskal to overturn the arbitration decision, arguing that Sandy was biased against Ackerman and ignored evidence that other employees were treated more leniently for similar or more serious infractions.

The Public Employment Relations Board in August suspended Sandy six months for his unprofessional handling of the case, saying his decision contained “substantive inaccuracies and omissions” that were aggravated by embarrassing spelling and grammar errors. But the board said it had no power to overturn his conclusion that Ackerman’s firing was justified.

 

NEBRASKA

Nebraska death penalty protocols challenged

A man convicted in the murder case that inspired the 1999 movie “Boys Don’t Cry” has joined a fellow death row inmate in challenging Nebraska’s three-judge method for determining death sentences.

Attorneys for John Lotter argue that he had a right to have jurors, not judges, weigh his fate when he was sentenced to death in 1996, the Omaha World-Herald reports. The attorneys cite a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year that struck down Florida’s death penalty process, saying it gave too much power to judges to make the ultimate decision. After that ruling, Delaware’s high court followed suit and threw out that state’s death penalty-determining method.

Lotter was condemned for his role in the 1993 killings of Teena Brandon, a 21-year-old woman who lived briefly as a man, and two witnesses, Lisa Lambert and Philip DeVine, at a rural Humboldt, Nebraska, farmhouse.

A similar appeal has been filed on behalf of Jeffrey Hessler, convicted in the 2003 rape and murder of 15-year-old Gering, Nebraska, newspaper carrier Heather Guerrero.

The Nebraska attorney general’s office has filed motions arguing that Nebraska’s sentencing scheme allows jury participation and is not identical to the one struck down in Florida.

In Nebraska when a defendant is convicted in a death penalty case, the jury that decided guilt also decides whether aggravating factors exist to justify the defendant’s execution. If the jury finds such, a three-judge panel is convened to determine whether the aggravating factors outweigh any mitigating factors in the defendant’s favor. The three judges also must determine if the death sentence is warranted and, if so, whether it is proportionate to the penalty imposed in similar cases.

The three judges ultimately determine whether the defendant gets death or life in prison.

 

WISCONSIN

Former judges push for new judicial recusal rules

A group of ex-judges asked the Wisconsin Supreme Court on Wednesday to adopt rules requiring judges and justices to recuse themselves from cases involving campaign donors.

Fifty-four former judges sent a petition to the court asking for rules requiring municipal judges to step aside if they’ve received at least $500 from a litigant or attorney. The threshold for circuit judges would be $1,000, for appellate judges $2,500 and for justices $10,000, half of the $20,000 individual donor limit for a justice.

The limits also would apply if contributions are made separate from a judicial campaign but are clearly designed to influence the judge’s election. That portion of the proposal is designed to force judges to step down if so-called issue advocacy groups spend heavily on their behalf. Such groups aren’t subject to campaign finance restrictions because they don’t tell people which candidate to vote for or defeat.

The Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that candidates can coordinate with issue advocacy groups.

The petition calls for litigants to file statements with the court saying whether they or their attorneys donated $250 or more to judges or justices hearing their case. It seeks a state constitutional amendment allowing appeals judges or retired justices to sit on cases if multiple justices are forced off cases. Amendments must pass two consecutive legislative sessions and a statewide referendum to be added to the constitution.

It’s unlikely the proposal will gain any legs with the high court. Conservative-leaning justices voted 4-3 in 2009 to adopt rules saying donations by groups and individuals and independent spending don’t by themselves require judges to step aside in cases. The conservative majority on the court has grown to 5-2 since then.

 

NORTH DAKOTA

Pipeline fight spurs bill to exempt motorists who hit protesters

North Dakota’s Republican-led and largely oil-friendly Legislature is quickly introducing a raft of bills spurred by the bitter dispute between Dakota Access protesters and law enforcement, from restricting face coverings at protests to requiring the state to sue the federal government as a means of recouping millions in policing costs.

Sen. Kelly Armstrong, R-Dickinson and the state GOP chairman, said the measures are motivated by residents’ frustration with the ongoing protests in the southern part of the state, which at one point in the summer saw a thousands-strong encampment opposing the $3.8 billion, four-state pipeline.

“When people are having their lives disrupted, you’re going to see things move up here,” said Armstrong, an oil company executive and a former defense attorney. “It’s very difficult to write ‘protest laws.’ We need to make sure there is reasonable application of the law in all circumstances, whether protest-related or not.”

 

MINNESOTA

Man paralyzed at trampoline park settles for $3M

A Brainerd man has settled his lawsuit against a St. Cloud trampoline park where he suffered a paralyzing injury in 2015.

Attorneys representing Anthony Seitz say that AirMaxx Trampoline Park will pay Seitz $3 million to settle the case. The St. Cloud Times reports the settlement was reached during mediation.

Seitz was paralyzed in August 2015 after he jumped into a foam pit at the trampoline park. He was playing there with his 11-year-old son when he jumped into the pit and landed on his neck, breaking it.

Seitz signed a waiver of liability before the injury, but his lawsuit contended that AirMaxx was grossly negligent.

Michael Hutchens, an attorney for AirMaxx, says the park is safe but the settlement avoided a trial and a potentially much larger award.

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