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Iowa OKs millions in regent-related settlements
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Iowa OKs millions in regent-related settlements

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The Iowa State Capitol building Friday, July 31, 2020, in Des Moines.

The state agreed Monday to pay $5.7 million to offer compensation for or settle eight separate accusations of discrimination and negligence at its public universities — including payments to former University of Iowa police officers who sued for age discrimination, a sound tech hurt at a University of Northern Iowa concert and a UI student who crashed her moped after slipping on Cambus fuel.

As the settlements include several allegations of medical negligence at the UI Hospitals and Clinics, the UI Physicians group is paying $2.7 million of the total — with the state general fund covering the remaining $3 million.

So far this budget year — which ends in just a few weeks on June 30 — the state has paid from its general fund $4.67 million to settle lawsuits or comply with judgments against state entities. Of that, $4.1 million — or 88 percent — is related to Board of Regents institutions.

UNI Dome forklift

Among the biggest checks approved Monday — for $1.8 million — went to a Massachusetts man who on Feb. 21, 2016, was working as a sound technician for a Luke Bryan concert at the UNI Dome in Cedar Falls.

Francesco Sgambellone in a lawsuit filed Sept. 18, 2018, accused University of Northern Iowa Assistant Director of Facilities and Operations Trenton Ames of hitting him with a forklift he was operating in reverse while tearing down after the concert, striking Sgambellone’s leg and ankle.

Sgambellone was loading sound and staging equipment into a truck at the time he was hit by the forklift that was owned by the state, according to his lawsuit. He accused Ames of failing to maintain a proper lookout, maintain control of the forklift and act as a “reasonable driver.”

He accused the state of failing to properly train and supervise Ames, and for entrusting the equipment to him in the first place. A jury in April ruled in Sgambellone’s favor, awarding him $302,791 for past damages, $1.5 million for future damages and $2,468 for recoverable costs.

UI police age discrimination

The state settled for a total $150,000 with three former UI police offers who in December 2018 sued the institution and its administrators for creating and enabling a “culture of discrimination,” including age and disability discrimination.

Former UI Associate Director of Public Safety William Searls, who was 57 at the time, former Capt. Ian Scott, 54 at the time and former Capt. Loren Noska, 51 at the time accused then-Public Safety Director Scott Beckner, Associate Director David Visin and Senior Vice President of Finance and Operations Rod Lehnertz of the discrimination.

In their lawsuits, the former employees reported Beckner in April 2017 told them their positions were being eliminated as part of a reorganization amid budget concerns, even as younger employees saw their pay increased.

All three in their lawsuits accused Beckner of treating “younger, white male employees more favorably than employees protected by the Iowa Civil Rights Act, including special treatment in assignments, duties, promotions, and disciplinary action, such as refusing to order internal affairs investigations on younger, male employees who were reported to have violated department or university policies, as well as state law.”

In a statement to The Gazette in 2018, UI spokeswoman Jeneane Beck said Beckner reorganized the department after “careful review of the department’s governance structure, budget, and priorities moving forward.”

Beckner, after four years on the job, retired at the end of 2020. He had intended to leave in June but extended his stay through the end of the fall 2020 semester due to COVID-19.

As part of the state’s new settlements with Searls, Scott and Noska, they’ve agreed to drop from their claims defendants Visin and Lehnertz — maintaining the allegations against the UI and Beckner.

The state on May 24 had agreed to settle with each of the former officers for different amounts: Noska and his attorneys will receive $75,000; Searls and his lawyers will get $50,000; and Scott and his counsel will receive $25,000.

Moped crash

Another UI-related settlement pays UI student Hannah Mohr $25,000 after she lost control and crashed her moped in May 2018 by slipping on diesel fuel that had spilled out of a UI Bionic Cambus.

According to Mohr’s April 2020 lawsuit, the fuel cap was left off the Cambus when it finished fueling on the evening of May 5, 2018, spilling diesel along the roadway. When Mohr drove over the spilled fuel, she lost traction.

She suffered injuries to her neck, shoulder and hand — along with road rash — and $900 in damage to her moped.

UIHC negligence

Among the recent UIHC settlements, one — totaling $3.5 million — went to an Iowa City mother and father who accused physicians of negligence during the birth of their daughter. That state has agreed to pay $875,000 of the total, with the UI Physicians group covering $2.63 million.

Chant’a Burr and Eboni Burton-Payne sued the state and UIHC in March 2019 after their baby suffered seizure activity shortly after birth and was diagnosed with a lack of oxygen. In their lawsuit, the couple reports that after being admitted for labor induction at 38 weeks pregnant, a doctor educated them on the risks of induction and asked the mother to sign a “consent for possible cesarean section.”

“Eboni was not offered the option of a non-labor primary caesarean delivery,” according to the lawsuit.

After days of labor and numerous complexities and challenges, the baby was born on just before 7:30 p.m. Sept. 2, according to the lawsuit. With the baby suffering fetal distress and low oxygen, a neonatal resuscitation team was called to the delivery room.

In the days that followed, the baby suffered increased seizure activity. And she was discharged from the neonatal intensive care unit Oct. 5 with “permanent brain damage.”

According to the state settlement, the $3.5 million deal “is reasonable under the circumstances,” as the baby “continues to have seizures.”

“She is unable to speak, sit, feed herself, or walk. She will require lifelong care,” the settlement said.

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