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State Supreme Court: Prison agency immune from foul ball lawsuit (UPDATE)

By TODD RICHMOND
Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A former inmate can’t sue the Department of Corrections over injuries he suffered when a foul ball hit him during a prison yard baseball game four years ago, the state Supreme Court ruled Friday.

Adam Mayhugh was watching a game from the bleachers at Redgranite Correctional Institution in July 2011 when the ball hit him, according to court documents. He said he suffered a brain injury and a severed artery that led to strokes and acute respiratory failure.

He sued the department, then-Corrections Secretary Gary Hamblin, two unnamed guards and a number of engineering and insurance companies in 2012, alleging negligence in the baseball field’s design and a lack of protection for spectators.

A Waushara County judge dismissed the lawsuit on the grounds that the agency was immune to lawsuits since it’s an arm of the state. An appellate court affirmed the decision last summer in a six-paragraph ruling.

Mayhugh argued to the Supreme Court that the department isn’t entitled to immunity because it’s independent of the state. Even if the agency is part of the state, he contended, provisions in state law that state the agency can sue and be sued amount to a waiver of immunity.

The high court unanimously disagreed, ruling that the Department of Corrections is not independent of the state. The Legislature controls its budget, the agency can’t sell land with approval from the state Building Commission or the Legislature’s finance committee and its ability to enter into contracts is limited, the court said.

“Here, despite their breadth, the character of the DOC’s powers reveals that the legislature (sic) did not intend for the DOC to be anything other than an arm of the state,” Justice Ann Walsh Bradley wrote.

The justices went on to say they could find nothing to show DOC has waived its immunity and the “sue or be sued” language in state law doesn’t amount to a waiver.

Mayhugh’s attorney, Nicholas Andrew Wagener, didn’t immediately return a telephone message left at his office Friday morning.

Online court records show Mayhugh pleaded no contest to child enticement in early 2011 and was sentenced to 13 months in prison and 83 months on extended supervision. DOC spokeswoman Joy Staab didn’t immediately return an email message seeking to confirm Mayhugh’s sentence.

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