Judge says missing court reporter is hospitalized; state will try to extract needed transcripts from her equipment

A stenograph machine is used by court reporters to document court proceedings.

A court reporter whose disappearance led to a nearly year-long delay of the appeal in a $38 million personal injury verdict has been hospitalized in Madison, a judge revealed Thursday.

Racine County Circuit Judge Eugene Gasiorkiewicz told anxious lawyers from both sides of the high-dollar case that the reporter’s mother had contacted state court administrators this week, just as Gasiorkiewicz was about to issue a criminal warrant.

Brande Browne, 44, was several months late in producing a transcript of an 18-day trial that ended on February 14 last year. A Racine County jury had found in favor of Edward Vanderventer, who was paralyzed after being rear-ended in a 2015 crash. The jury found Hyundai Motor Co. responsible for more than $32 million of those damages because of the design of the driver’s seat in Vanderventer’s 2013 Elantra.

Hyundai sought to appeal and paid Browne $9,750 extra to expedite the transcripts.

After months of delays, failed emails, then promises, and sanctions from the Court of Appeals over Browne’s failure to produce the transcripts from the trial, Gasiorkiewicz had Browne served with an order to appear in his court Dec. 10 to explain the delay.

She failed to show, and he issued a civil bench warrant that she be brought in. But deputies couldn’t find Browne, and her Racine residence appeared to have been vacated without notice or forwarding address.

In court Thursday, Gasiorkiewicz said investigators thought Browne might be in Iowa, where she has property and a sibling. He said he was about to issue a criminal warrant, that would allow police outside Wisconsin to arrest Browne. He said Browne has failed to produce transcripts for at least a couple other cases pending at the Court of Appeals as well.

But earlier this week, he said, he heard from state court administrators who said Browne’s mother had contacted them to say Browne has been hospitalized in Madison since sometime between when she was personally served with the notice to appear for the Dec. 10 hearing and that date.

He said he did not know what prompted Browne’s mother to call state court administrators or anything about Browne’s hospitalization.

Browne’s mother turned over Browne’s steno machine and two laptop computers so that others may try to produce the needed transcripts if the required data can be found on the machines.

Lawyers for both Vanderventer and Hyundai suggested, and the judge agreed, that another, independent forensic consultant should be involved with setting out the protocol for trying to access Browne’s notes if Browne can’t provide some passwords and guidance to where the information lies.

The lawyers also thanked Gasiorkiewicz for his efforts in trying to help procure the transcript. Without one, Hyundai can’t really appeal. If denied an appeal, the company would likely be entitled to a new trial in the case.

And the longer the case is on appeal, the longer Vanderventer, 67, must wait to collect the ultimate damages award.

Gasiorkiewicz explained he had hired Browne at the beginning of last year, shortly before the trial began, upon recommendation of a Dane County judge who had used her services. He said once he learned that she was late in getting the transcripts needed for Hyundai’s appeal, he gave her time off and reduced her workload so she could complete them.

After she was still behind, he said, he warned of discipline if she didn’t produce the transcripts by a deadline in November. Two days before the deadline, he said, she resigned and said she would deal directly with the lawyers and the Court of Appeals.

Contact Bruce Vielmetti at (414) 224-2187 or bvielmetti@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ProofHearsay.