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102-year-old case speaks to us in 2017

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Judge Jean DiMotto retired in 2013 after 16 years on the Milwaukee County Circuit bench and now serves as a reserve judge. She also is of counsel with Nistler Law office SC. She can be reached at jeandimotto@gmail.com

Judge Jean DiMotto retired in 2013 after
16 years on the Milwaukee County Circuit bench and now serves as a
reserve judge. She also is of counsel with Nistler Law office SC. She can be reached at jeandimotto@gmail.com

The Court of Appeals relied on an 102-year-old precedent to decide the case of Hart v. Artisan and Truckers Cas. Co.

The case involved a release of claims that was signed on the very same afternoon as a car accident.

The question: Was the release admissible in a subsequent lawsuit as a writing signed within 72 hours of the accident?

Offer to settle

Antrice Hart was injured when Esvin Gomez caused a rear-end collision. A half hour after the accident had occurred, Hart called Gomez’s insurance company, Artisan, to report the claim.

Artisan acted nimbly. A representative called Hart back within 45 minutes. Hart was in the middle of dealing with a flat tire and asked the representative to call her back later.

The Artisan representative complied, and waited 45 minutes before calling Hart again. This was now just 2 hours after the accident. The conversation was recorded.

The representative told Hart that she could take her car to Artisan’s service center yet that day. She also told her that Artisan could “set aside $1000 for the next fifteen days” for medical bills and would give her $500 for her pain and inconvenience.

Hart would need to “sign a release.” The Artisan representative told her the release would be ready for her to sign at the Artisan service center when she dropped off her car for repair.

The release

The title of the document, “Full Release of All Claims with Indemnity,” accurately described its contents. By signing it, Hart, in consideration of the $500, “the receipt and sufficiency of which is hereby acknowledged,” released Artisan from any and all claims stemming from the accident.

The release acknowledged the “further consideration” of Artisan’s agreeing “to pay reasonable and necessary medical and/or dental expenses” that were incurred by Hart within the next 15 days.

Lawsuit

Nonetheless, Hart sued Artisan and Gomez 10 months later. Artisan filed a summary judgment motion on the grounds that the release barred Hart’s personal-injury suit.

Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Glenn Yamahiro granted the motion.

Hart appealed.

The appeal was based on sec. 904.12(1), which she argued barred the admission of the release because she had signed it within 72 hours of the time of the accident and injury.

Old precedent

District I Presiding Judge Kitty Brennan wrote the court’s unanimous decision disagreeing with Hart’s premise.

The court first noted that sec. 904.12(1) is “in all relevant respects identical” to its predecessor statute, which was first passed in 1911.

The statute then and now makes inadmissible a “statement made or writing signed by the injured party” within the 72-hour period. There’s no question that Hart signed the release within that time period.

So the essential question presented by Hart’s appeal is: Does the statute include a release within its language for a “statement made or writing signed”?

Rather remarkably, there is a case from 1915 interpreting the predecessor statute to answer that very question.

In Buckland v. Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis and Omaha Railway Co., the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that releases are not encompassed by the statute.

“Had the Legislature intended to prevent settlements being made within seventy-two hours after an injury occurred, it would have said so unequivocally.” To the contrary, the law encourages settlements and presumes that they are valid.

The court of appeals observed that the statute, then and now, is an evidentiary statute and both versions of it “are identical in purpose and meaning.” Accordingly, the Buckland court’s interpretation must be followed even now.

Buckland “expressly held that the legislature intended to encourage settlement and did not intend to exclude settlement releases or it would have said so.”

Finally, the court noted that in more than 100 years, the legislature “has never expressed its disapproval by amending the statute to specify that releases signed within seventy-two hours are prohibited as evidence.”

This lends further weight to the court’s conclusion about the continuing viability of the Buckland court’s interpretation.

Accordingly, Hart’s release was admissible into evidence, causing her lawsuit to be barred.

Commentary

The decision logically argues to its outcome.

Nonetheless, one can’t help wondering if such swift settlements were more common in 1915 than they are now.

This insurance company here was “Johnny on the spot” in obtaining a shockingly quick, very meager settlement agreement. The injured driver was probably not especially sophisticated and was lured by what seemed like quick, easy money. She may even have thought she was getting the $1,000, which was actually reserved for medical expenses.

The trouble with swift settlements, of course, is that there is no allowance for permanency or even medical care beyond 15 days. The extent of pain and suffering is also unknown.
Still, this sharp practice of an insurance company is protected by 100 years of precedent.

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