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.