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A Landmark Decision

Vesel had a fight ahead of her in court, too. To get damages, each woman had to prove she’d suffered harm from harassment at the mine. Lawyers for the mine tried to prove that if the women were psychologically scarred, it was from other events in their lives, not their years at the mine. A retired judge was appointed to hear this part of the case. Twenty years later, lawyer Paul Sprenger says he’s still appalled at the personal questions the judge let the company lawyers ask.

“He allowed depositions of former lovers from 30 years prior,” Sprenger says. “I mean it was ludicrous. Examination of their entire life history from their birth records and every hospitalization they ever had. It was awful.”

Denise Vesel remembers the defense lawyers asking her what she and her husband did at motorcycle rallies. Were bikers into wife swapping?

She says they asked “if I’d ever had venereal disease, if I’d ever had an abortion. I mean just getting personal. Did you ever have intercourse with anyone on the job? Who did you have intercourse with? How many times? It was like, no. When they started subpoenaing women’s personal records, they found out things they shouldn’t have. That was bad. That was wrong. That was evil.”

Defense attorney David Goldstein says he had to ask personal questions to find out what really caused the women's emotional problems. - Courtesy Faegre & Benson

One of the lawyers for the mine, David Goldstein, says the blame for these invasive questions lies partly with the women’s own lawyers. If they had simply claimed the women suffered mental anguish, these questions would not have been necessary, he says. But the women’s lawyers were arguing they had diagnosable mental disorders.

“We were solely asking the questions and obtaining the material that you would need in order to do a proper psychiatric evaluation,” says Goldstein. “Many psychiatric problems have their origins in childhood or early life. You need to go back that far in order to understand the record.”

Goldstein says company lawyers were not trying to scare women into dropping out of the suit. But one woman did quit: Jan Wollin. One of her sons had been convicted of murder a few years before, and she didn’t want to relive that. Her arthritis was aggravated by stress. And besides, she says what she really wanted was an apology, and she got one.

“We went to court and the foreman was on the stand,” she says. “They asked him if he ever had patted me. And he said, ‘Yes I did.’ And he said right on the stand, ‘Jan I’m sorry. I was out of line. I never should have done that.’ And I was happy. I was happy.”

When the trial was finally over, the other women would not be so happy. They had spent months making their case. But the judge did not believe them.

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