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Bill would end parents’ unlimited liability for auto accidents

Republican lawmakers are trying to get rid of the unlimited liability that parents are exposed to under Wisconsin statutes if their children cause an automobile accident before turning 18.

Assembly Bill 706, which received a hearing before the Assembly Judiciary Committee on Thursday, would cap at $300,000 the amount parents can be forced to pay.

Advocates of the change argued that setting such a limit would leave parents exposed to possible losses that are greater than many realize but at least would eliminate the unlimited liability that exists under current law.

Democrat skeptics on the judiciary committee, though, questioned if the proposed protection would come at the expense of victims.

“To me,” said state Rep. Gary Hebl, D-Sun Prairie, “we are erring on the side of the person who has committed an egregious act.”

Jeffrey Leavell, secretary treasurer of the Wisconsin Defense Counsel, a group that advocates for defendants’ rights, said the bill would help make Wisconsin statutes more consistent. He said the law already sets a cap on the fines that can be imposed on parents whose children are the perpetrators of property damage, theft, bodily injury or various acts of vandalism. School boards and other school-governing bodies are limited to collecting $20,000 at most in such cases, and all other parties are limited to $5,000.

Leavell said he thinks most parents assume that similar caps are in place for accidents caused by their children. He said that, to get a driver’s license for a child who is under the age of 18, parents sign a Department of Motor Vehicles form warning that they can be held liable for the child’s negligent and willful misconduct behind the wheel.

But, Leavell said, he said he thinks that language escapes the notice of most.

“Very few parents are aware that every time they give their kids keys to the car,” he said, “they are exposed to unlimited liability.”

Representing the Wisconsin Association for Justice, the state’s former trial lawyers’ association, Eric Farnsworth said the legislation only would encourage parents to carry less insurance. He said most wealthy people do not need the proposed cap because they can afford to insure their assets.

And those who are poorer, he said, are less exposed to risk than proponents of the bill contend. Farnsworth said few lawyers try to push a defendant into bankruptcy, knowing that most of the person’s assets will then become unrecoverable.

He also argued that at least some of the blame for car accidents often falls on parents, especially in cases in which a driver was texting behind the wheel.

“We buy those kids those smartphones,” Farnsworth said. “Because if you don’t, you are a Scrooge.”

For AB 706 to become law, it still must be passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Scott Walker.

The co-sponsors of the legislation, state Rep. Jim Ott, R-Mequon, and state Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, said they are unaware of cases in which parents have lost a lot of money over an accident caused by a child under the age of 18. The lawmakers, who have been sponsors of other so-called tort reform bills this legislative session, said they are merely trying to bring consistency to the state’s protections against unlimited liability and to ensure parents receive fair treatment.

“It is very wrong,” Grothman said, “to imply the parent is the perpetrator.”

About Dan Shaw, [email protected]

Dan Shaw is the managing editor at the Wisconsin Law Journal. He can be reached at [email protected] or at 414-225-1807.

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