A lawsuit against a UW-Madison official, brought by a student who said the official withheld key information from her while counseling her over her mother’s death, has been settled for $200,000, a state Department of Justice spokesman said Friday.
UW-Madison student Megan Mengelt sued UW-Madison College of Letters and Science assistant dean Tori Richardson last year after learning that Richardson had been texting with former Lutheran bishop Bruce Burnside shortly before Burnside struck and killed Mengelt’s mother, Maureen Mengelt, on April 7, 2013, but never told her.
After her mother’s death, Mengelt became involved in a counseling relationship with Richardson, when he reached out to her in an email message asking whether she needed any help.
According to the lawsuit, it wasn’t until much later, in January 2015, that Mengelt’s family learned that Richardson was the person exchanging text messages with Burnside before Burnside struck and killed Maureen Mengelt in Sun Prairie, while she was taking a training run.
At the time, Burnside was headed to an event at a church in Sun Prairie. His blood alcohol concentration was 0.12 percent, and other distractions in his car also have been cited as factors in the crash.
Burnside, 63, later pleaded guilty to second-degree reckless homicide and drunken driving and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
State Department of Justice spokesman Johnny Koremenos said that the $200,000 will come from the state’s risk management fund. The settlement contains no admission of wrongdoing by anyone, he said.
Richardson served a 30-day suspension from UW without pay in 2015 for “not meeting the university’s professional standards.”
Lawyers for Mengelt did not respond to messages seeking comment.
The lawsuit states that Mengelt received an email from Richardson, whom she had never met, four days after her mother’s death. They developed a counseling relationship, her lawsuit states, that was “confidential and trusting,” and during that relationship Richardson sought information about the ongoing prosecution of Burnside and a potential civil lawsuit against him.
The lawsuit accused Richardson of misrepresenting himself throughout the counseling relationship, causing Mengelt to disclose information that she would not have otherwise told him. Mengelt said the discovery that Richardson had been the person with whom Burnside was texting just before her mother’s death caused “severe and permanent emotional distress” to her.
The Mengelt family also sued Burnside, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the South Central Wisconsin Lutheran synod over Maureen Mengelt’s death. A confidential settlement of that lawsuit was reached in June 2016.
According to a deposition given for that lawsuit, Richardson said that he had asked his boss whether it would be appropriate for him to personally reach out to Megan Mengelt after her mother’s death, but he admitted not telling his boss that he had been exchanging text messages with Burnside before the crash.
He also said in the deposition that he never told Mengelt that he was acquainted with Burnside, or that he had been texting with him.
Richardson also admitted that he continued to have contact with Mengelt even after learning that police had identified him as the person exchanging text messages with Burnside.
In a deposition for the lawsuit against him, Burnside said that Richardson barely mentioned the Mengelts or any information he had gleaned from conversations with Megan Mengelt.