Is That Damage to Your Vehicle Less Than $1000?

Is That Damage to Your Vehicle Less Than $1000?

For those who may have been involved in an non-injury minor car accident, you may have heard from the other driver or bystander, “that damage is under $1000, no need to get the police involved.” A recent Wisconsin Court of Appeals decision, County of Monroe v. Kling, albeit unpublished, shows that it is better to be safe than sorry.

Wisconsin law states that if the operator of motor vehicle is involved in an accident resulting in total damage to property owned by any one person to an apparent extent of $1,000 or more, the operator must immediately notify law enforcement of the accident by the quickest means of communication.§ Wis. Stat. 346.70(1). Unsurprisingly, the rub is what is “apparent extent?”

In County of Monroe v. Kling, Mr. Kling was heading home from work when he veered to the side of the road, hit a mailbox, overcorrected his steering, and drove into a ditch. Kling was unharmed, and he was assisted at the scene by a several bystanders. Kling could not drive his vehicle out of the ditch, as the tires had popped off their rims and the vehicle had grounded out in the mud. One of the bystanders asked Kling if he had contacted law enforcement; Kling had not. The bystander called law enforcement as Kling received a ride home. After Kling returned home, he called law enforcement and a tow truck driver, and he contacted the owner of the mailbox and offered to replace it. Kling’s call to law enforcement was 34 minutes after the bystander’s call.

At the repair shop, Kling’s tires were reattached to the rims and inflated, the car checked for leaks, but no estimate was made for any bodywork. Kling picked it up two days later. Law enforcement issued Kling a traffic citation in violation of §Wis. Stat. 346.70(1). Kling contested the ticket at a bench trial, focusing his defense that it was not apparent to him that his vehicle has sustained at least $1,000 of damage.

The responding officer was the State’s sole witness on the extent of the damage to Kling’s vehicle, playing portions of his body camera. The video showed an intact vehicle, no leaking fluids, and the only visible damage was deflated tires, and the passenger side panel appeared to have some damage and some bumper trim had fallen off. According to the officer, “that’s way over the threshold of $1,000.”

Kling presented evidence that the cost to tow and remount the wheels was $200.45, and he replaced the bumper a few years earlier and it had cost him about $500. He presented an eBay listing for a comparable bumper for $146.91. He did not provide any estimate for repairing the side panel. The trial court credited the officer’s testimony and said it was confident that the total damage was much more than $1,000. Kling appealed.

The appellate court’s decision hinged on the undefined term of “apparent.” Per the court, the term apparent means damage that is visible and obvious, regardless of whether later inspection reveals more. Any damage that would require specialized training or expertise to identify is not apparent. Also, “apparent” means at the accident scene, and while the factfinder can consider after-the-fact estimates or receipts, they are not directed toward the disposition o f the case. Crucially, the Court held that § 346.70(1) is a strict liability statute that does not require proof of subjective intent; “apparent extent” is an objective person test.

As such, the Court held: “I conclude that an operator of a vehicle must report an accident when it would be obvious to a reasonable person in the operator’s position, at the time of the accident, that the total costs of repairing the visible damage to any one person’s property to as good of a condition as before the accident equals or exceeds $1,000.”

The Court of Appeals upheld the Trial Court’s ruling, focusing on the damage to the side panel pushing the total cost above $1,000 and crediting the responding officer’s testimony and opinion. It is important to point out that this is not a published decision and cannot be cited for authority; also considering that Mr. Kling was unrepresented at the Trial and Appellate Courts, it would not be a good case to make established law. That said, there can be little doubt that the various charging authorities have knowledge of this decision. The next time you scrape a pole in a parking lot or get into a fender bender, to avoid a citation, it is best to call the authorities.

Camp Lejeune Justice Act

Camp Lejeune Justice Act

The word Le jeune translates from French as young or youthful. This seemingly benign name does not accurately reflect the decades of water contamination and coverup that occurred at the Marine Corp Base Camp Lejeune.

Between 1953 and 1987, it is estimated that nearly one million people drank, cooked, and bathed in contaminated water while living or working at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina. This huge swath of people included military, civilian employees, and military family members. There is a lengthy history encompassing the realization of the contamination, the efforts of those affected to seek compensation through the courts and the VA system, and various attempted legislative efforts. Without delving into a detailed history, those injured by the contaminated water had an exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, task of trying to recover either through state court, federal court, or administrative agencies.

However, this past August, in a broad bipartisan fashion, the United States Congress passed, and President Biden signed, the Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2022 that provides monetary relief to those injured by exposure to water at Camp Lejeune. The Act allows those individuals who were on base for 30 days or more between August 1, 1953 and December 31, 1987 to bring an action in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina to obtain relief for harm caused by exposure to water at Camp Lejeune. This includes unborn babies that were in utero during the time of exposure.

Crucially, the legislation is written in such a way to make it easier for those harmed to recover than in a normal personal injury action. First, there is no requirement showing that the United States, or anyone else, was negligent. Second, the burden of proof, is:  “evidence showing that the relationship between exposure to the water at Camp Lejeune and the harm is–

(A)     sufficient to conclude that a causal relationship exists; or

(B)     sufficient to conclude that a causal relationship is at least as likely as not.”

Lastly, the United States is not allowed to assert any claim of immunity. In exchange though, there are no punitive damages allowed, and awards are offset by benefits received from Veteran Affairs, Medicare, or Medicaid in connection with health care or a disability related to water exposure at Camp Lejeune. Claims must be commenced within the latter of two years after the date of enactment of this Act (August 10, 2022), or 180 days after the claim is denied under 28 U.S. Code § 2675.

If you have any questions about the Act or believe you may have a claim, feel free to contact our experienced personal injury lawyers.

 

Are Contractors Actually Fully Insured?

Are Contractors Actually Fully Insured?

Anyone who has inquired with, or hired, a contractor or homebuilder has invariably seen or been told by the company that they are “fully insured.”  More times than not, this statement simply means that the company has a standard commercial general liability (CGL) policy. Unfortunately, these “fully insured” statements understandably give the customer a false sense of security that if anything goes wrong with the work performed by the contractor or builder, its insurance company will cover the damage and make things right. In fact, with a standard CGL policy, the opposite is true:  the insurance company will not cover damage that arises out of the company’s work (or its contactor or subcontractor). What is often referred to as the “your work,” “business risk” or “exclusion” directs to an exclusion in standard CGL policies that bar coverage for property damage to the part of the real property that the company is performing work on. The language often looks like this in CGL policies:

This insurance does not apply to:

  1. Damage to Property

Property damage to:

…. (5) That particular part of real property on which you or any contractor or subcontractor working directly or indirectly on your behalf is performing operations, if the property damage arises out of those operations.

Practically speaking, this exclusion bars insurance coverage for damages such as deficient or defective work performed by the company or damage to your property caused by the company’s work. The net effect of no insurance coverage means that any recovery by the aggrieved customer will have to come against the company itself, which, depending on the company’s financial status, can be exceedingly difficult. Not only are many contractor and building companies set up as legal entities designed to protect against liability, but Wisconsin law exempts up to $15,000 in business assets from execution of a judgment. See Wis. Stat. § 815.18(3)(b).

In summary, it is incredibly important to vet the contractor or building company prior to hiring. In addition to their reputation and longevity in the community, you can inquire whether they have any insurance coverage or bond above a standard CGL policy and whether they have the financial resources to pay a judgement if a dispute arises. Moreover, the Wisconsin Circuit Court Access search (https://wcca.wicourts.gov/)  allows you to look up a company and see if they have unpaid judgments entered against them. This due diligence is necessary because a contractor’s claim of “fully insured” means little to nothing when the contractor’s work is the subject of the claim.

 

Hospital Liens: A Threat to Your Personal Injury Case

Hospital Liens: A Threat to Your Personal Injury Case

If you have health insurance, Medicaid or Medicare and you go to a hospital in your insurer’s network for treatment, the hospital is required to submit the treatment bills to your health insurer, Medicaid or Medicare.  You may have to pay a deductible, co-pay or co-insurance percentage, but the hospital does not send you a bill for the entire charged amount.  This holds true, unless that hospital’s treatment is for personal injuries caused by another person’s negligence, such as a car crash.

It is often surprising and dismaying to injury victims – who have paid premiums to auto insurance for medical payments coverage and for health insurance – that shortly after discharge from the hospital they get notice of a lien for a huge dollar amount.  Welcome to the little-known Hospital Lien statute, Wis. Stat. § 779.80:

(1)  Every corporation, association or other organization operating as a charitable institution and maintaining a hospital in this state shall have a lien for services rendered, by way of treatment, care or maintenance, to any person who has sustained personal injuries as a result of the negligence, wrongful act or any tort of any other person.

(2) Such lien shall attach to any and all rights of action, suits, claims, demands and upon any judgment, award or determination, and upon the proceeds of any settlement which such injured person, or legal representatives might have against any such other person for damages on account of such injuries, for the amount of the reasonable and necessary charges of such hospital.

Hospital liens create significant complications for an injury victim’s case.  First, the lien is for 100% of the total charged amount of the treatment; there are no contracted discounts that you often see with health insurance, Medicaid and Medicare.  Second, since the hospital is not an insurance company, the lien is not subject to Wisconsin’s Made Whole or Common Fund doctrines, both of which serve to reduce the amount paid back to health insurers out of an injury settlement or judgment.  Third, it does not matter if you have health insurance, Medicaid, or Medicare that would pay for the treatment; the hospital can bypass them and still put a lien on your personal injury settlement or judgment.

Because hospital liens can potentially eat up a significant amount, if not all, of a personal injury settlement, it is crucial that injury victims get an attorney as soon as possible.  For a hospital lien to be effective, there are several statutory and notice requirements that the hospital must comply with within certain time limits; an attorney can evaluate whether all these requirements have been properly complied with.  Also, an attorney can communicate with the hospital about the possible limitations for settlement or judgment and reach agreement with the hospital for a dollar amount less than the lien amount, or convince them that, based on the limited funds available, the hospital is better off submitting the bills to health insurance, Medicaid or Medicare.

Hospital liens serve as another reminder of why it is so important to obtain a competent attorney after an injury.  If you or someone you know has been injured and are facing a hospital lien, feel free to contact one of our personal injury attorneys at Anderson O’Brien, LLP.

 

Returning to Work After a Work Comp Injury

Returning to Work After a Work Comp Injury

Absent the lucky few, most Wisconsin workers are considered “at-will” employees. This means absent exceptions for unlawful discrimination (e.g. race, gender, age, religion, etc.), a worker can be fired for any reason, or no reason at all.  However, worker’s compensation injuries are another exception to this “at-will” presumption that makes a work injury a protected category.

Under Wisconsin’s workers’ compensation law, Wis. Stat. § 102.35(3), an employer (at time of injury) who terminates, or unreasonably refuses to rehire, an employee after a work injury is subject to a penalty of up to one year’s lost wages. The purpose behind this law is to dissuade discrimination against employees who have been injured on the job and, assuming there is work available within the worker’s restrictions, make sure the injured worker gets back to work with his former employer. This is yet another outgrowth of the bargain struck between workers and employers under Wisconsin’s worker’s compensation regime:  workers do not get to sue their employers or co-workers for injuries, but they are entitled to a system of no-fault benefits and job protections.

When returning to work, there is a distinction between returning while still healing with temporary physical restrictions versus returning to work with permanent physical restrictions. An employee must provide notice to their employer of any temporary (as well as permanent) restrictions. If the employer can provide work within the temporary restrictions at the same rate of pay, no temporary disability is owed; if the employer can only provide work at lower wages or less hours, the worker is owed temporary partial disability; and, if the employer cannot provide any work, the employee is owed temporary total disability. If an employer terminates a worker while they are still healing, the worker has an unreasonable refusal to rehire claim.

When an injured worker reaches an end of healing or “healing plateau,” the treating physician may assign permanent physical restrictions along with any permanent disability percentage. If the worker is provided permanent work restrictions, they must provide the same to their employer. Under Wis. Stat. § 102.35(3), the employer must offer “suitable employment…within the employee’s physical and mental limitations.” If the worker’s permanent restrictions allow return to their same job at the time of injury, they should be offered it. However, the employer must offer any suitable position available even if different than the position the worker had at the time of the injury. Only when there is truly no work available within the worker’s restrictions can the employer refuse to rehire the injured worker. The employer, not the employee, bears the burden of proving the lack of suitable employment.

The above is not meant to suggest that there is an absolute unassailable right to return to work for the same employer following a work injury. When determining whether there is “suitable employment,” the statute allows for consideration of “the continuance in business of the employer.” This gives rise to the employer’s argument that the nature of business or economic situation dictated its refusal to rehire the injured worker, not the work injury.

Unsurprisingly, these are highly fact-dependent issues and claims. Moreover, unreasonable refusal to rehire penalties are paid by the employer, not the work comp insurance company, which means they are hotly contested and litigated. The above is only a brief snapshot and is not meant to cover all the variations that accompany return-to-work decisions after a work injury; if you have questions, do not hesitate to reach out to one of our worker’s compensation or employment law attorneys.

 

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