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Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 19 April 2000
Court upholds $143,715 award for spanking
Panel backs circuit judge who set damages after boss hit worker
By Dennis Chaptman
Madison - A trial court's award of $143,715 to a computer analyst who said his boss spanked him with a 4-foot-long carpenter's level during a bizarre workplace ritual was upheld by the state Court of Appeals Tuesday.
Franklin J. Smith alleged he was spanked by Kurt Getschow, chief executive officer of the Oconto Falls-based Phillips Getschow Co., in October 1995. Smith won a $1 million jury award from the company last July, but that amount was later reduced by Oconto County Circuit Judge Larry Jeske.
According to court records:
Smith said Getschow approached him in October 1995 at work, told him that he once worked in a circus guessing people's weight and then led Smith to the firm's shop area. Several employees watched as Getschow circled Smith, carrying the carpenter's level, appearing to size him up.
Another employee then lifted Smith off the ground and, as he turned back to look at Getschow, Smith testified, his boss drew back with the carpenter's level as if he were going to hit a baseball.
"I closed my eyes. He hit me. I tightened up and I felt him hit me again, and then I just waited for it to be over," said Smith, who said it felt as if Getschow hit him a dozen times on the buttocks, though he did not keep count after the first two hits.
Another witness said Smith was struck twice with the tool, and each blow produced a "loud crack."
Smith said that after he was released, Getschow laughed, put down the carpenter's level, put his arm around Smith and told him: "Now, you're one of us."
Smith said pain from the spanking lasted two days, while bruising was evident for seven to 10 days. Smith left the firm in March 1996.
Getschow testified at the trial that the "weighing-in ceremony" was a rite of passage at the firm and that he had been on the receiving end of the ceremony when he was 16 years old. Getschow added that the ritual had not taken place in years.
Dale Leifker, the company's chief financial officer, testified that he had heard of the ceremonies and had advised Getschow to stop the practice.
After hearing the testimony, the jury made the $1 million award, an amount that Jeske later ruled to be excessive. Jeske reasoned that although Phillips Getschow Co. had assets of $5.7 million, "to take a million dollars from a corporation that took over a hundred years to get to its present financial condition just is not right."
Both Smith and the company appealed, with the firm arguing that Jeske erred in allowing punitive damage issues to go to the jury. Meanwhile, Smith argued that the jury's original award was not excessive.
Jeske's award consisted of $130,000 in punitive damages, $6,000 in compensatory damages and $7,715 in costs.
In the opinion upholding that award, Chief Appeals Court Judge Thomas Cane wrote that Jeske properly used his discretion in reducing the damages and was not remiss in instructing the jury on punitive damages.
"The trial court concluded that $130,000 - the salary of one of PGC's top executives - constituted a substantial amount of money to PGC," Cane wrote for the appeals panel based in Wausau. "Because the trial court set forth evidence and rational reasons supporting its determination, we conclude it properly exercised its discretion."
Attorneys for Smith and the company could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
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