Five Key Takeaways Following the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s Invalidation of the Safer at Home Order

Five Key Takeaways Following the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s Invalidation of the Safer at Home Order

The Wisconsin Supreme Court, by a 4-3 vote, invalidated Wisconsin’s Safer-at-Home Order, also known as Order #28.  It issued that decision on May 13, 2020. Here are five key takeaways to consider in the wake of that decision:

1.)  As of this writing, Order #28 is no longer enforceable. People in Wisconsin are not required by that Order to stay at home.  Non-essential businesses are not required to remain closed.  There is one exception to the Supreme Court’s decision, however:  The portion of Order #28 that requires closure of public and private K-12 schools remains in effect for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year.

2.)  The Supreme Court’s decision does not affect any other federal or state legislation concerning the COVID-19 pandemic, such as the so-called Families First legislation, the CARES Act, Wisconsin Act 185, or any similar legislation. Those laws remain in effect.

3.)  Wisconsin businesses must continue to be aware of the Wisconsin Safe Place law. That law requires that an employer, or owner of a place that is open to the public must provide a safe place of employment for both employees and visitors and to undertake that which is reasonably necessary to life, health, safety and general welfare of employees and visitors.  OSHA’s general duty clause also remains in effect.  It holds that each employer shall furnish to each employee a place of employment that is free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees.

4.)  People and businesses may continue to use the concepts found within Order #28 to guide their conduct. However, such guidance is voluntary; it is not mandatory.  Businesses should continue to review the CDC or the Wisconsin DHS website for suggested practices in addressing health concerns relating to COVID-19.

5.)  It is possible that local health authorities may issue rules or orders that affect people or businesses following the invalidation of Order #28. In addition, Governor Tony Evers and the Wisconsin Legislature may collaborate on new rules or legislation to replace Order #28.

Stay apprised of new legal developments in the weeks and months ahead.  Seek legal counsel as necessary.  In the meantime, the attorneys at Anderson O’Brien will continue to monitor the legal developments with you.

 

U.S. Department of Labor and IRS Extend COBRA Deadlines

U.S. Department of Labor and IRS Extend COBRA Deadlines

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Wisconsinites, along with the rest of the nation, have endured sudden and severe job loss.  As of May 14, 2020, the University of Wisconsin Center for Research on the Wisconsin Economy estimated the Wisconsin unemployment rate to be 21.9%.  In addition to the significant financial losses that attend such massive changes in employment status, job loss often results in the loss of health coverage.  Recent data indicates that roughly 57% of Wisconsin’s non-elderly population (i.e., non-Medicare) obtain their health insurance through an employer.

As many are familiar, one of the health insurance options available to those who lose their employment and employer provided health insurance is to apply for COBRA, which allows an employee and his or her dependents to maintain coverage at their own expense by paying the full cost of the premium.  Of course, there are certain deadlines that apply to seeking COBRA coverage.  Normally, a person has 60 days from the date of receipt of the COBRA notice to elect COBRA (election period), and then 45 days after the date of COBRA election to make the initial premium payment (premium payment period).

However, with the sudden and massive job losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic, on May 4, 2020, the U.S. Department of Labor and the IRS extended these standard COBRA deadlines.  Under the new rule, many COBRA deadlines are extended beyond the “Outbreak Period,” which is defined as March 1, 2020, to 60 days after the end of the National Emergency declaration.  The relief specifically directs all group health plans subject to ERISA or the IRS Code to disregard the period from March 1, 2020, through 60 days after the announced end of the national emergency when determining certain periods and dates, including the election period for COBRA continuation coverage and the date for making COBRA initial premium payments.

These changes are a welcome acknowledgment by these entities that the huge societal upheaval caused by the pandemic has made meeting standard deadlines increasingly difficult.  Feel free to contact one of our employment attorneys with any questions or concerns.  Be well and stay safe.

 

Beware of Dog Owner Liability and Coverage

Beware of Dog Owner Liability and Coverage

“As wonderful as dogs can be, they are famous for missing the point.” – Jean Ferris. Sometimes when dogs miss the point; things can go horribly wrong. Statistically, there are four to five million Americans bitten by dogs every year.  There is precedent for animals standing trial for criminal charges, with the earliest record of an animal trial is the execution of a pig in 1266 at Fontenay-aux-Roses.  However, in recent history, putting the animal on trial for its vicious acts has gone out of vogue. Without the possibility of a kangaroo court – pun intended – it is the owners who face the consequences when a good dog “breaks bad.”  Specifically, Wisconsin has two categories of laws regarding the liability for harm caused by dogs.

The first applies when the dog has no history of causing harm.  In this case, the owner will only be liable for the actual amount of damage caused by the dog.  Included in the amount an owner may owe to the victim are hospital bills, lost wages and money to compensate the victim for pain and suffering.  It is worth noting that under the law, “owner” includes anyone who keeps or harbors a dog. This means that if you are caring for a dog long-term at your residence, you may be liable for damage caused by the dog if you are found to be “harboring or keeping” the dog.

The second category of liability creates enhanced penalties for an owner of a dog who has notice of the dog’s past bad behavior.  To quote the statute, “the owner of a dog is liable for twice the full amount of damages caused by the dog biting a person with sufficient force to break the skin and cause permanent physical scarring or disfigurement if the owner was notified or knew that the dog had previously, without provocation, bitten a person with sufficient force to break the skin and cause permanent physical scarring or disfigurement.”  Luckily, normal puppy bites and teething behavior do not rise to this level. Gasper v. Parbs, 2001 WI App 259, 249 Wis. 2d 106, 637 N.W.2d 399.

In light of the threat that a dog owner may be on the hook for the damage caused by a dog that attacks, what can be done? Aside from obedience training, the most important thing to do is to check your homeowner’s insurance policy.  Many policies have language excluding certain dog breeds from liability coverage. A list of commonly excluded breeds may include any of following: Pit Bull, American Pit Bull, Rottweiler, Chow Chow, Doberman Pinscher, American Staffordshire Terrier, American Bulldog, Colorado Bulldog, Northwood’s Bulldog, English Bull Terrier, Wolf Hybrids, or a mixed breed with any of the aforementioned breeds.  Although this list seems somewhat arbitrary, it is worth checking your policy to determine if you will be covered in the event that your dog bites someone.

 

Take it Easy on the Beers While Riding a Lawn Mower

Take it Easy on the Beers While Riding a Lawn Mower

If you are like me, after mowing the lawn and job well cut, you may enjoy a cold refreshing adult beverage.  With that frosty refreshment in mind, I stumbled upon a recent, and unique, Wisconsin Court of Appeals decision that held that a riding lawn mower is a “motor vehicle” for purposes of Wisconsin’s Operating While Intoxicated (OWI) statute.  Since we are in the doldrums of winter, I figured the case was worth a share as a humorous public service announcement during these dark and cold days.

In the recent State v. Shoeder case, following his departure from a local tavern, the defendant was arrested for an OWI while he was operating a riding lawn mower on the shoulder of a public roadway.  The defendant moved to dismiss the charge, arguing that a riding lawn mower is not a “motor vehicle” within the meaning of the OWI statute, and instead it was more akin to Wisconsin’s definition of an “all-terrain vehicle” (OWI while on an ATV had different penalties).  The trial court and Court of Appeals disagreed with the defendant’s position.

In reaching its decision, the Court of Appeals looked at the definitions of “motor vehicle” and “vehicle.”  Under Wisconsin law, a “motor vehicle” is any vehicle that “is self-propelled, except a vehicle operated exclusively on rail.”  Crucial to the decision was the broadly defined “vehicle,” which includes “every device in, upon, or by which any person or property is or may be transported or drawn upon a highway, except railroad trains.”  Wis. Stat. § 340.01(74).

Applying these definitions to the defendant’s chosen conveyance, the court determined that the riding lawn mower was a “motor vehicle” and “vehicle;” it is self-propelled and a device on which a person may be transported on a highway.  The court further rejected the defendant’s argument that the riding lawn mower should be considered an “all-terrain vehicle,” as it did not meet the ATV definition requirement of being “equipped with a seat designed to be straddled by the operator.”  Wis. Stat. § 340.01(2g).

It is important to highlight a very important fact that led to this defendant’s predicament:  He was using the riding lawn mower on the shoulder of a public roadway.  As with any OWI in Wisconsin, the operation must have taken place on a public roadway or highway; a homeowner’s lawn is not going to be considered a public roadway for purposes of the OWI statute should someone make the mistake to over imbibe.   That all said, the safest route is to limit your beer consumption to when you are done cutting the lawn and are sitting back enjoying the fruits of your labor.

 

Update on Bill That Seeks to Curb Harassment of Sports Officials

Update on Bill That Seeks to Curb Harassment of Sports Officials

Sports, even at the high school level, can raise emotions in players and spectators alike.  Sports officials are not strangers to displeasure with calls they make on the field or court.  However, there comes a point when expressing displeasure can cross the line. For this reason, a growing number of legislators from both sides of the aisle are backing a new bill that would criminalize harassment of sports officials.

Under current Wisconsin law, a person can be charged for harassment or intimidation of another, striking, shoving or kicking another person or engaging in a course of conduct that repeatedly commits acts which harass or intimidate another person and which serve no legitimate purpose. Offenders can be slapped with a fine up to $1,000 which is classified as a Class B forfeiture.

Under the bill, someone who harasses a referee, umpire, judge or person performing similar functions and the conduct is in response to a sport official’s action or is intended to influence a sport official’s action, could receive greater consequences.  Punishment could include up to nine months in jail, a fine of $10,000 or both, classifying it as a Class A misdemeanor.

Organizations are identifying an increasing need for protections specific to sports officials.  Referees are already protected by law in 24 other states.  According to a Wisconsin Public Radio report on the bill: “In 2017, the National Association of Sports Officials conducted a survey of more than 17,000 referees from across the country. It found that nearly 50 percent of officials have feared for their safety, while almost 60 percent felt that sportsmanship is on the decline.”

Legislation offering protection to sports officials has found support from organizations including the National Association of Sports Officials, the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association, the Wisconsin Athletic Directors Association and the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.

The bill has bi-partisan support but is currently seeking co-sponsors before it would be presented to a legislative committee in Wisconsin.  Support for the bill continues to grow with sponsorship coming from 29 Assembly representatives and nine senators.

 

Flood Damage – Is Your Home or Business Covered?

Flood Damage – Is Your Home or Business Covered?

Flooding is the nation’s most common natural disaster, which causes billions of dollars in damage each year. Just one inch of water can cause $25,000 in damages to your home. Flooding can result from natural disasters such as hurricanes, excessive rain, or events such as excessive snow melt and rising water levels in rivers and lakes due to ice dams or snow melt. Wisconsin was hit hard by flooding as a result of excessive snow melt in early Spring 2019, and many residents contacted our firm to address potential recovery under their insurance policies.

Unfortunately, the fact is, regardless of whether the flooding at your home or business is a result of a natural occurrence, most homeowner’s and business insurance policies do NOT provide coverage for flooding. Additionally, sewer backup or sump pump overflow is not covered by a standard homeowner’s insurance policy or by flood insurance. This type of coverage must be purchased with a special endorsement on your homeowner’s policy.

Those who live in areas that are at high risk for flooding, based upon government flood zone maps, may be required to obtain flood insurance as a condition of receiving a mortgage from a federally regulated or insured lender. Even if federal law does not require it, a lender may still require that you possess flood insurance. If you live in a high risk area, you may be able to purchase a policy through the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

If you live in a low risk flood zone or in areas that typically have a low risk for flooding, flood insurance is not federally required. However, flood insurance may still be worth considering, because over 20% of flood insurance claims come from outside the high risk areas. You will need to check with your insurance agent whether it is possible to purchase flood insurance through a private insurance company or if your community participates in the National Flood Insurance Program where flood insurance policies should be available for purchase. Based upon the web site www.fema.gov, both Stevens Point and the Village of Plover, the area in Wisconsin our firm is located, are communities which participate in the National Flood Insurance Program.

How much flood insurance coverage is typically available through a flood insurance policy? In a one to four family residence, there is typically $250,000 in coverage for the structure itself and $100,000 for the contents. For a business, there is typically $500,000 for the structure and $500,000 for the contents.

There is typically a 30-day waiting period from the date you purchase the flood insurance policy before your policy goes into effect. Therefore, you cannot afford to wait until an imminent threat of flooding before you purchase flood insurance to protect yourself. Additionally, if you have flood insurance, make sure that you do not let your policy lapse, as that will cause you to lose coverage and you may not be in compliance with the terms of your Mortgage Agreement if your lender requires flood insurance.

For more information on which private companies sell flood insurance and to learn additional information on other questions you may have about the National Flood Insurance Program, please check out the following website: www.floodsmart.gov. Another resource you may wish to consult is the Wisconsin Office of the Commissioner of Insurance: www.oci.wi.gov. These are valuable resources that can lead you into the right direction as you consider protecting your home or business from flooding in the future.

 

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