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Court dismisses suit brought by victim of drunken driver against city of Duluth, golf course operator

Stephen Ballard received a $50,000 settlement from the insurance company of the drunken driver who struck his car and left him with severe injuries in July 2011.

But that amount, Ballard’s attorney said, didn’t even cover his medical bills, much less future expenses and loss of income.

Ballard’s attempt to reclaim some of those losses took a hit recently when a judge tossed out his lawsuit against the city of Duluth and Professional Golf Management, which oversees operations at the city-owned Enger Park Golf Course. The suit asked for additional monetary damages, claiming that the golf course over-served the man who later struck Ballard’s car.

Sixth Judicial District Judge John DeSanto granted summary judgment for the defendants last month, ruling that Ballard signed away his rights to future claims when he entered into the agreement with the driver’s insurance company.

Ballard, then 19, suffered a closed-head injury and concussion, along with several bone fractures and other injuries, when his car was struck by Robert Chesser on July 22, 2011, according to court documents. Chesser, who was determined to have a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.22 percent, later pleaded guilty to criminal vehicular operation.

In December 2011, Ballard signed a “release of all claims” with Chesser’s insurance company and collected $50,000, the maximum liability under Chesser’s policy.

Ballard’s attorney, Ron Envall, said he respects the judge’s ruling, but believes DeSanto over-interpreted the release agreement.

He plans to appeal the dismissal.

“If you look at the release, it only releases two people: the gentleman who ran into Mr. Ballard on that evening and his wife,” Envall said. “Those are the only specifically listed people.”

Last July, Ballard sued the city and Professional Golf Management, claiming that Chesser was served alcoholic beverages at the golf course while he was “obviously intoxicated,” in violation of state law. The complaint argued that Ballard should be compensated for injuries, pain, mental distress, permanent disability, medical bills and future loss of income. Ballard later agreed to drop the city from his claim because the management company was responsible for serving alcoholic beverages.

Defense attorneys argued at a February summary judgment hearing that Ballard gave up his right to sue when he signed the insurance settlement.

The release states that it is a “full and final compromise adjustment and settlement of any and all claims, disputed or otherwise, on account of the injuries and damages above mentioned, and for the express purpose of precluding forever any further or additional claims arising out of the aforesaid accident.”

Envall argued before the court that the agreement released only the Chessers from future claims. He said it should not apply to the liquor supplier that he considers partially responsible for the crash.

“The claim against the liquor provider is entirely separate than the claim against the driver,” Envall said. “We had no intention of releasing the liquor provider.”

However, DeSanto noted in his order that the agreement did not contain a clause that is sometimes included to preserve potential future claims.

“The Release operated to release all claims against all Defendants, and as such, Defendants’ motion for summary judgment must be granted,” the judge wrote.

The suit was dismissed with prejudice, meaning Ballard cannot bring any future claims on the same grounds. He has until late June to file an appeal with the Minnesota Court of Appeals.