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February 27, 2014 9:55 am

Powell woman loses fairground lawsuit against Park County

Written by CJ Baker

A Powell woman will not get any part of the $2.5 million she sought after being hit with a trash can mounted on a skid steer loader at the 2009 Park County Fair.

A judge ruled in favor of Park County last month after Marla Skelton, 52, didn’t attend a court hearing in the case.

In her December 2010 complaint against the Fair Board, the Park County Commission and Zach Wagner (the skid steer operator), Skelton described herself as having been thrown “violently forward” by the impact to her back. Witnesses quoted in court records, including Skelton, agree the incident did not knock her over or cause her to spill the fair food in her hands.

Skelton alleged continuous pain and permanent and disabling injuries to her spine and legs from the collision.

Attorneys representing Park County said in filings that Skelton had not been forthright about having received treatment for pain in her back and neck prior to the incident at the Park County Fair.

Skelton’s attorney, James Castberg of Sheridan, stopped representing her in November, writing that due to “certain matters” that had come to his attention, “the attorney-client relationship can no longer continue.”

Skelton submitted a letter to the court on Dec. 8 saying she would be representing herself as a pro se litigant, because Castberg left so late in the process.

“It is essential that I get my day in court, and that I get my opportunity for justice,” she wrote.

Skelton later wrote another letter saying Castberg had been “remiss” in handling the case and asked for an extension of deadlines. However, she improperly filed the request.

District Court Judge Steven Cranfill ruled for the county on Jan. 8 when Skelton didn’t attend the day’s hearing or submit her proposed jury instructions. She and her husband David had repeatedly called Cranfill’s office about the case — including to say they had a long-planned Jan. 8 medical appointment in Billings — rather than submitting requests in writing as required, court documents say.

“The actions of the plaintiff, in failing to comply with the orders of this court, show a willful disregard of the seriousness of these proceedings and her responsibilities, even giving credit for the fact that she is proceeding pro se,” Cranfill wrote in the Jan. 13 order that closed the three-year-old case.

The judge also wrote there appeared to be no evidence that the county had been negligent, as claimed in Skelton’s suit.

Park County was represented by Cody attorneys Larry Jones and Bill Simpson, retained by the Wyoming Local Government Liability Pool that insures the county.

In a Tuesday interview, Marla and David Skelton said that without an attorney, they didn’t know the significance of missing the Jan. 8 summary judgment hearing.

“We didn’t have any idea that that was as important as it was,” David Skelton said.

The couple criticized the judicial system, saying it’s unfair to people without a lawyer.

“This has been an incredibly difficult four years for our family, and a very big eye-opener to how the system works against us as citizens and individuals,” David Skelton said.

Marla Skelton’s suit had sought $25,000 in lost wages, some $31,700 for past medical bills, $150,000 for future medical expenses, $500,000 for lost enjoyment and quality of life, $600,000 for permanent disability, $1.2 million for pain and suffering and additional money as punitive damages.

Private eye observes her

Skelton received medication and sought a series of medical treatments for pain across much of her body after the 2009 collision. Dr. Lawrence Splitter of Billings diagnosed her as having suffered a permanent partial disability of 5 percent between her upper, mid and lower spine as a result of the incident. He found no impairment in her legs.

Splitter wrote that during his assessment, Skelton denied “prior injuries or pain” in her neck, low-back, and shoulders. However, a doctor hired by the county’s insurer to evaluate Skelton said her medical records showed “a long history” of pain in her upper, mid and lower spine “for which she had undergone extensive treatment” — mostly from a chiropractic physician — between late 2005 and the summer of 2009.

When asked about the discrepancy by the Tribune, Marla Skelton said “there’s a lot of misinformation that we were not able to follow-up with due to our lawyer dropping out of being our lawyer.”

The doctor retained on the county’s behalf, Paul E. Ruttle of Jackson, opined in a 2013 report that Skelton’s limited neck motion was “in all probability voluntary in nature.” Ruttle said Skelton was able to move her head comfortably while talking about her medical history, then displayed a limited range of motion when he examined her.

“It is unlikely that simply being struck in the calf and not falling to the ground or dropping her food would have resulted in the degree of symptoms that the patient complains of at this time,” Ruttle added. He concluded none of Skelton’s pain was due to the July 2009 incident.

The Skeltons reject Ruttle’s conclusions. David Skelton said his wife was hit “from behind by a several thousand-pound machine.”

“Who wouldn’t be injured by a forklift hitting them like they hit me? There is not one single person that would not be injured by being hit with a forklift,” Marla Skelton said. “And anybody that wants to stand up and say they wouldn’t, let’s stand them in front of a forklift, drive that thing into them and see if they would be injured.”

Dustin Bell, Wagner’s brother and a fellow fair worker, told a private investigator hired by the county’s attorneys that he saw the skid steer-mounted trash bin hit Skelton.

“She didn’t lose her balance, just stumbled forward like she’d been shoved,” Bell told investigator Al Cooper of Cody, according to a report from Cooper included in court records.

“Someone yelled ‘stop, stop’ and a lady walked out from behind me holding french fries and a pop,” Wagner, the equipment operator, told Cooper. “And she started yelling, and her friend came up and they both started yelling at me, so I put the pallet down and said, ‘Are you OK?’ and said, ‘I’m going to get my boss.’”

Court records say Skelton told Dr. Splitter in June 2010 that she needed help with housework — including packing in groceries, vacuuming, doing the dishes and loading and unloading laundry — because of the injuries from the collision.

On two days in July 2012, Cooper conducted surveillance of Skelton. Sitting in a residence across the road from the Skeltons’ rural Powell home, he photographed Skelton going about chores, like carrying groceries and animal feed and picking items up off the ground. Cooper said she appeared to be doing the work without any physical limitations.

The Skeltons call it “ridiculous” for Cooper to reach such a conclusion from so far away and without ever talking to them; they also called the photos selective.

“I didn’t ever claim to be incapable of doing anything,” Marla Skelton said.

As for having their residence surveilled by county representatives some three years after the incident, David Skelton called it “very creepy and very bizarre.”

“This whole thing is really nasty,” he said.

Marla Skelton said she continues to be in pain.

“I will have to deal with this from here on out,” she said.

2 comments

  • Comment Link March 04, 2014 8:27 pm posted by momothegreat@hotmail.com

    Shame on you City of Powell judicial bullies! This woman has to live and function in an every day world without the subsidization you take for granted. I hope you have the opportunity to experience the same treatment from injuries with the same results.

  • Comment Link March 04, 2014 9:48 pm posted by heidi brightly

    Maybe she can go over to McDonnalds and order a hot coffee.

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