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Wisconsin Prisoner Injured Dismantling Horse Stalls Awarded $14,000

On July 2, 2010, the Wisconsin Supreme Court affirmed an award of about $14,000 to a prisoner injured while disassembling metal horse stalls at the state fair. The award followed the trial court’s finding a state fair supervisor was negligent in fulfilling a ministerial duty during the tear down of the stalls.

Pursuant to an arrangement between the Milwaukee House of Corrections and the Wisconsin State Fair Park, a group of about 12 prisoners were brought to the Park in September 2005 to assist in taking down structures. Prisoner Michael Pries was amongst the group assigned to dismantle horse stalls under the supervision of Raymond McMillon, a full-time employee with the Park.

The stalls were made of four solid stall pieces that weigh approximately 200 pounds each, requiring four individuals to pick up. After dismantling two other stalls with two prisoners, Pries and the crew he was on struggled to dislodge a stall piece that was stuck to another piece. McMillon approached the prisoners, telling them, “Let me show you how we do it.”

Park procedure for dismantling the stalls provide, “Always have someone holding up the piece that you are taking down.” McMillon had observed that the chains responsible for securing the pieces had been removed and commented they should not have been.

Yet McMillon “jumped up” on and straddled a stall next to the piece the prisoners were trying to free and “started jerking it up and down” with his hands. Immediately afterwards there was a “devastating accident” that caused a “domino effect” of unchained stall pieces, which fell on all three prisoners. Pries was struck in the face, knocked down, and pinned underneath a piece. He was treated for a broken foot and other injuries at a hospital.

Pries sued McMillon and the Park’s insurance company for his injuries under negligence theory. The circuit court concluded McMillon did not have discretion to deviate from the disassembly instructions, and the ministerial duty exception to the governmental immunity doctrine did not shield him from liability. It then awarded Pries approximately $14,000 for his medical bills and for pain and suffering, plus costs and attorney fees. An appeal followed.

The court of appeals affirmed, but it held the circuit court erred in concluding the ministerial duty exception applied. Rather, the appellate court reasoned the known danger exception to immunity applied. The Supreme Court, however, found the court of appeals erred, for the Park’s instructions created a ministerial duty upon McMillon to assure the stall pieces were secured. Nonetheless, the judgment was affirmed. See: Pries v. McMillon, 326 Wis.2d 37, 784 N.W.2d 648 (Wis. 2010).

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Related legal case

Pries v. McMillon