A federal judge has rejected Milwaukee County's bid to force its insurer to pay a $6.7 million jury verdict in a case stemming from a corrections officer's repeated sexual assaults of a pregnant Milwaukee County Jail inmate.
The county's insurer, Wisconsin County Mutual Insurance Corp, told the county that it would not pay the award, meaning the county would be stuck with the bill. The county turned to U.S. District Judge J.P. Stadtmueller in an effort to get that decision overturned.
Stadtmueller, though, said payment dispute should not be tacked on to existing case. The trial, he said, was not about insurance, but was about what happened to the woman assaulted by former Corrections Officer Xavier Thicklen.
"Now, more than a month after that trial, the county wishes to hijack this litigation to resolve its insurance coverage dispute," Stadtmueller said in his decision.
Justice, he said, "would in fact be offended" if the county was allowed to pursue its insurance dispute through the original case.
"The prejudice to plaintiff - having her case taken over (and put on hold indefinitely) to resolve a fight as to who must pay her - is undeniable," he wrote.
He denied the county's motion without prejudice so the county could pursue it in state court.
"To say that Thicklen’s conduct was merely reprehensible is almost sickeningly generous." - U.S. District Judge J. P. Stadtmueller
Stadtmueller also denied the county's request to have the verdict overturned because Thicklen was not acting within the scope of his job when he assaulted the inmate, an argument the judge already had considered and rejected.
"The Court has already provided to the parties all of the wisdom it can offer on this point," he wrote in his new decision. "If the County desires a different outcome, it must seek it in the Court of Appeals."
He also shot down the county's argument that the jury's verdict, which included $1.7 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages, was excessive.
The county's arguments, Stadtmueller said, "are half-hearted and merit little discussion. ... Contrary to the county’s arguments, plaintiff suffered both physical and emotional injuries as a result of Thicklen’s repeated sexual assaults."
Specifically addressing the punitive damages award, Stadtmueller said,
"To say that Thicklen’s conduct was merely reprehensible is almost sickeningly generous. He repeatedly raped a young woman at varying stages of pregnancy, abusing the power he had over her in the most heinous manner possible, causing her physical and (lasting) mental injuries at a time when she was exceedingly vulnerable."
Gretchen Schuldt is executive director of the Wisconsin Justice Initiative.
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