Go Buy An Umbrella

Go Buy An Umbrella

The above title is not encouraging you to buy something to protect you from the rain! It refers to purchasing an umbrella insurance policy to protect you and your family from liability claims, and to provide you with ample coverage for your losses due to injuries sustained in an auto accident. The typical cost for a $1,000,000 umbrella policy can be as little as $200 or $300 per year. This is a bargain for an additional $1,000,000 in protection.

As attorneys, not only do we represent clients, we also counsel them. One of my favorite topics to discuss with clients is having adequate insurance, including the purchase of “umbrella” coverage. This coverage refers to an extra layer of protection on top of your existing insurance coverage, of at least $1,000,000 or more, to protect you in case you have personal liability in an auto accident or under your homeowner’s policy. The umbrella policy you purchase should also include an endorsement to apply to your underinsured and uninsured motorist coverage on your automobile insurance policy. Some insurance companies may offer an umbrella policy you can purchase, and some may not. Some insurance companies may sell you an umbrella policy that applies to liability coverage only, for example, if you are at fault under your homeowner or auto policy. However, you need to consider being insured by a company that offers an umbrella policy that covers liability and has an endorsement to cover underinsured and uninsured motorist coverage in case you sustain serious injuries in an auto accident. You need to specifically ask for all three of these protections to have the best protection possible.

The reason for having an umbrella policy is to simply provide a significant increase in insurance coverage for a very low cost. In our practice, we see all types of auto accidents, and homeowner’s liability issues, and the first thing we ask our clients when they come to us is what type of insurance is available from the other party, and from our client. All too often we must tell our clients that the person who ran into them with their vehicle either had no insurance, or minimum insurance limits. We then look to our client’s insurance policy for potential additional coverage, and if they have low underinsured or low uninsured coverage there may be very little we can do to obtain compensation for our clients for their significant losses. Given the high cost of medical care, injured parties can easily sustain tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills, in addition to significant wage loss and potential permanent disability preventing future earnings. If you have an umbrella policy of at least $1,000,000 that applies to liability and uninsured motorist coverage and underinsured motorist coverage, you will have a better chance of protecting yourself and obtaining full compensation for your injuries.

In summary, go buy an umbrella policy to protect yourself and your family. In order to give yourself full protection, you need to tell your insurance agent that you need the umbrella policy to cover (1) liability for home and auto, and (2) an endorsement so that the umbrella applies to your underinsured and uninsured automobile coverage. If you have any questions about an umbrella policy, please feel free to contact me and I will be happy to discuss it further with you.

 

The Book of Surprises

The Book of Surprises

There is an elephantine book with 995 chapters that most Wisconsinites know exists, but no one has ever read cover-to-cover. The topics in this book are eclectic and cover a staggering range of subjects from “wild animals and plants” to “communicable diseases” to “prison labor” to “gambling.” It is not the Bible and it is not a thesaurus, nonetheless it is the authority on all aspects of our daily lives.

Open the book to a random chapter and behold the magnitude of its content. For example, Chapter 882 tells us that “An adult may be adopted by any other adult, who is a resident of this state.” Considering opening a bawdyhouse? Think again! Chapter 823 calls such establishments a nuisance and allows for taking of “furniture” and “musical instruments” used in such a business. Looking for some entertainment on October 10th, Chapter 995 informs us that “appropriate exercises and celebrations may be held” in honor of William D. Hoard’s birthday. For those not in the know, William Hoard was the 16th Governor of Wisconsin and is the namesake of Hoard’s Dairyman, a magazine.

Curiosities abound in this book. It blesses marriages between first cousins “where the female has attained the age of 55 years or where either party, at the time of application for a marriage license, submits an affidavit signed by a physician stating that either party is permanently sterile.”

Want to know the difference between a “pet bird” and a “wild bird?” It is in the book. Chapter 169 defines a “pet bird” to mean a “bird that is either a psittacine or a soft bill and that is not native” as opposed to a “wild bird” which is “a wild animal that is a bird.” There is also practical guidance such as in Chapter 29, the prohibition against capturing or killing “any wild animal with the aid of any explosive or poison gas.”

The book is also practical where it gives guidance to employers including that an “employer shall, at the time of hiring, notify each employee about any hairstyle, facial hair or clothing requirement.” To this point, it even threatens a fine of not less than $10 nor more than $30 to an employer “in any manufacturing, mechanical or mercantile establishment” who fails to “provide suitable seats for its employees.”  And, if there were any doubt about where a municipal judge should hold court, it is removed by Chapter 755, which states: “No judge may keep his or her office or hold court in any tavern, or in any room in which intoxicating liquors are sold, or in any room connecting with a tavern or room in which intoxicating liquors are sold.”

These archaic rules laid down in this massive tome may come as surprise. However, this book is free, routinely updated and available for study. Every citizen of Wisconsin has imputed knowledge of all 995 chapters of this book. Ignorance of the rules of the book won’t save a person that runs afoul of any command of the book. Ignorantia juris non excusat—ignorance of the law does not excuse. This book, of course, is our beloved Wisconsin Statutes. https://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/statutes/statutes.

 

What is Mediation and How Does it Work?

What is Mediation and How Does it Work?

Mediation is a private process for resolving disputes by which an independent mediator assists the parties in reaching a mutually satisfactory settlement. While the courts can require that some cases go to mediation, the process remains voluntary in that the parties are not required to come to an agreement.

Issues That are Typically Mediated

When a lawsuit is filed, it is common for courts to require the parties to engage in some form of informal dispute resolution to attempt to settle their case. The types of cases that are typically mediated include disputes involving personal injuries, business transactions, real estate, insurance, construction, breach of contract, as well as family law and custody disputes, to name a few. It should be noted that a case does not have to be in the court system or in litigation for mediation to be utilized or to be effective. Informal disputes between businesses, neighbors, or among people within a workplace could also benefit from voluntary mediation even without being in a lawsuit.

The Role of the Mediator

Mediators are typically attorneys and retired judges. The mediator will not decide the outcome of the case. The mediator is neutral, impartial and does not choose one side’s position over the other. The mediator’s job is to help the parties resolve their issues through a process that encourages each side to air their dispute, identify their strengths and weaknesses, and to address potential solutions to the problem that will be satisfactory to all sides. The primary goal of a mediation is for all parties to work out a solution they can live with. Nothing will be decided unless both parties agree to it. The mediator will assess the case, highlight the strengths and challenges of each side, point out the risk and expense associated with continuing with the dispute and having a trial, and the uncertainty of leaving it in the hands of a judge or a jury to decide the parties’ fate.

Typical Mediation Procedure

There are different methods for how mediations are conducted. Mediations often take place at a mediator’s office or at the office of one of the attorneys involved in the dispute. Many mediations that take place in the context of a lawsuit are conducted with the parties in separate rooms for the entire mediation. Each side presents a statement to the mediator about the dispute and how they would like it resolved. It is typical for the parties and their attorney to file written submissions to the mediator at least a week in advance of the mediation so that the mediator will be familiar with the issues involved in the dispute. The mediator will then go from one room to the other to discuss potential avenues for resolution with each party with the goal of reaching an agreement. The discussions the mediator has with each side in separate rooms are completely confidential and are not disclosed to the other side. If an agreement is reached, it will then be reduced to a written document that can be enforced in court. Mediations can last a few hours to a full day, or even longer, depending on the complexity of the issues and the number of parties involved.

Other styles of mediation involve the parties having a joint session where they are all in the same room for the entire mediation and the parties discuss potential ways to settle their issues with the mediator facilitating that discussion.

The Benefits of Mediation

Mediation has many benefits when compared to a dispute that works its way through the court system and all the way through a trial. These benefits include the following: (1) Everything said by the parties at mediation is confidential and is not admissible in court; (2) The parties can resolve their dispute privately without having to testify in open court; (3) The parties can avoid the costs of ongoing litigation expense and trial; (4) The parties have total control over the outcome of their own dispute, without having to take the risk of presenting their issues to a judge or jury who will ultimately decide the parties’ fate; and (5) Mediation can be conducted even before a lawsuit is filed, which can significantly shorten the timeframe in which the parties can resolve their dispute.

Attorney Richard H. Fuller at Anderson O’Brien not only represents parties at mediations, but he also conducts mediations as part of his civil litigation practice. If you have any questions about mediations, please do not hesitate to contact him.

 

Harassment Restraining Orders: What You Need to Know.

Harassment Restraining Orders: What You Need to Know.

Harassment restraining orders are appropriate when another person threatens, attempts or does strike, shove, kick or otherwise subjects you to physical contact; or repeatedly acts in a harassing or intimidating manner toward you for no legitimate purpose.  These types of restraining orders are commonly requested by victims of stalking.  To begin the process of requesting a harassment restraining order, the person seeking the order (petitioner) is required to file a petition for a temporary restraining order and motion for injunction hearing.  The petition includes the parties’ basic information as well as a statement of the facts providing the basis for why a harassment restraining order is being sought.

After the Court receives the petition, it will issue a temporary restraining order if the alleged conduct of the person whom a restraining order is being sought (respondent) meets the statutory definition of harassment.  A temporary restraining order requires respondent to stop harassing the petitioner, avoid the petitioner and any place occupied by the petitioner and to not contact the petitioner.  Regardless of whether a temporary restraining order is granted, the Court will schedule an injunction hearing to determine whether a harassment injunction is appropriate.  An injunction is the same as the temporary restraining order except that it can be in place for up to four years, whereas a temporary restraining order is in place only until the date of the injunction hearing.

At the injunction hearing, the petitioner is required to provide testimony and evidence as to why a harassment injunction is appropriate.  The respondent may also provide testimony and evidence if he or she wishes to contest the motion for injunction.  Based on the testimony and evidence, the Court will decide whether there are reasonable grounds to believe that the respondent engaged in harassment with intent to harass or intimidate the petitioner.  If such grounds exist, the Court will grant the injunction.  The determination of whether an injunction will be granted is very often fact specific.  If you have questions regarding a harassment restraining order, please contact the attorneys at Anderson O’Brien, Bertz, Skrenes and Golla, LLP.

 

My Garage Is Bigger Than Yours

My Garage Is Bigger Than Yours

As of late, Wisconsin courts have been grappling with one of the most important questions facing the nation: What is a garage? Is it defined by size or exterior proportions? Do the construction materials define what it means to be a garage? Attached or detached? Is it defined by the contents it holds within? Or should it be defined by the conduct of those who frequent the garage?

For those among us who have long grappled with these fundamental issues, rest easy as the Wisconsin Court of Appeals in Buehrens v. Schave provides clarity. Like all good lawsuits, it started between feuding neighbors. The Schaves built a “building” with “an electric garage door” that is “thirty-six feet by eighty feet, reaching sixteen feet high.” To put this in context, the Schaves’ building was the dimensional equivalent of a great blue whale. Angry neighbors decried that it was a “pole barn” that violated restrictive covenants “as its size rendered it something other than a garage.” Without casting judgment, it is fair to say that there is no community barn-raising taking place in this subdivision.

In filing their lawsuit, the neighbors asked the court to order the building removed. The Schaves would have none of it and declared that the building fell squarely within the definition of a “garage.” Which, of course, was allowed by the subdivision’s covenants. To determine the fate of the building, the court turned to Webster’s Dictionary. There, the court found that “a reputable dictionary defines ‘garage’ as ‘a building or compartment of a building used for housing an automotive vehicle’.” With this definition, the court waved its wand and crowned the “building” a “garage” because the Schaves could show it was used for storing automobiles. As a result, the Schaves get to keep their garage.

However, the case reveals the problem with clear-line definitions. For instance, if the Schaves decided not to store automobiles would it revert to a pole barn and lose its status as a garage? Also, as most of us know, many garages have never been kissed by the warm rubber of a car’s tire, but instead have been disgraced by boxes of endless clutter. Does this make such a structure any less of a garage? Wouldn’t it be as good, if not better, to define a garage based on the activities that take place within such as band practice and startup companies? Otherwise, what fate befalls punk rock bands like Nirvana and industrious businesses following in the footsteps of Apple? To me, defining a garage by one item that may be found inside is like defining a human by the presence of an appendix or tonsils.

 

The COVID Trials

The COVID Trials

The constitutional right to a jury trial does not take a back seat to coronavirus (COVID-19.) Yet, COVID-19 has impacted the ability of courts to supply juries for trial. The Seventh Amendment codifies the right to a jury trial not only for criminal trials, but in civil cases as well. This article explores how courts are grappling with the challenge of seating a jury and trying cases.  Litigants know too well the meaning of the legal maxim, “justice delayed is justice denied.” Nevertheless, a jury that is distracted and afraid for their physical well-being because of COVID-19 cannot deliver justice. Herein lies the conflict facing our courts – the right to a jury of one’s peers and juror’s right to safety.

One of the first federal judges to resume jury trials during the COVID-19 pandemic likened the experience to “building an airplane while you’re flying it.” A playbook for resuming jury trials is emerging from these pioneering judges who have conducted jury trials in the wake of COVID-19.

First, the layout and the physical arrangement of jurors, in particular the confinement of the jury box, must be addressed. One solution has been to spread jurors out in the gallery — to allow for social distancing. Going further, other courtrooms have added physical barriers and guards. In addition to plexiglass barriers, some courts have installed audio systems with headsets that enable clients and lawyers to whisper to each other, much as they would in a traditional courtroom, but from a safe distance. One such recommendation is to proceed with smaller juries.  For instance, Wisconsin law allows for a jury of six persons in civil cases.

The next set of the recommendations focus on safety practices, which include requiring facial coverings be worn by all individuals in the courtroom (judges and staff included), having prospective jurors’ temperatures taken as they enter the court building, providing hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, disinfectant spray and paper towels. Another practical policy is to avoid passing exhibits between jurors.

Courts also have wrestled with the question of who must wear masks in the courtroom. Most courts seem to be on the side of masks for all persons in the courtroom. This is problematic because of the difficulty of assessing credibility of someone in a mask, a core function of the jury. Where possible, courts have permitted witnesses to be examined without masks, via video from within a room in the courthouse.

The challenges of in-person jury trials have led some courts to experiment with more novel ideas. Could a jury trial be conducted by Zoom? It appears so. Remote civil jury trial pilot programs in Florida and Texas are already in place. A jury trial that occurred in Florida commenced entirely via Zoom; some potential jurors had to be dismissed for technical issues during jury selection. As expected, audio and video feeds occasionally froze. The judge was often asking each individual juror: “Can you see me? Can you hear me?” Despite technical issues, the Florida Zoom trial was successful.

There is no single antidote for resuming jury trials in the wake of this pandemic. In the words of Hibbing, Minnesota’s most famous resident, “the times they are a-changin’.” More than ever, courts and communities must work together to safely preserve the right to a jury trial and concomitant duty to serve as a juror.

 

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