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Stranger Than Fiction: Only In Wisconsin

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How would you feel if an irresponsible driver hurt you, but the State of Wisconsin told you that you couldn't recover money for your injuries because the place you needed to file your claim doesn't exist? That's essentially what happened to one woman, and will happen to many more Wisconsin residents, as a result of a recent Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling.

So what led to this absurd result?


It All Started So Smoothly...

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An employee of the Wisconsin Department of Health Services was on-the-job when he rear-ended a car and set off a series of rear-end collisions. A woman who was injured due to this crash filed a property damage claim with the state. All standard procedures for filing a claim such as this were followed, and the claim was hand-delivered to employees at the Wisconsin Attorney General's office at the Capitol. The state processed her property damage claim, and paid her for the damages to her car.

Hand delivery of a claim, also known as "personal service," has long been considered the gold standard of providing notice and is widely preferred to certified mail.

...But Then The Court Became Too Literal.

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Later, it became necessary for her to file a personal injury claim against the driver. But shortly after that claim was filed, it was dismissed by an appeals court.

Why?

The court cited a statute that requires notice of claims against state employees to be sent via certified mail to the Attorney General's Capitol office, not hand delivered as had happened with the previous part of this claim.

This seems reasonable, until you find out that the Attorney General doesn't accept certified mail at the Capitol.

So, according to the court, the only way to file a claim like this is to deliver notice in one particular way to one particular place, but that place can't accept the notice when it's sent in the way the court requires.

Even though the Attorney General had what is known in the legal world as "actual notice" of this claim, the court threw the case out based on this extreme literalist interpretation of state law.

The injured woman, with nowhere else to turn, filed an appeal of this decision with the state Supreme Court.

The Absurdity Continues

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Unfortunately, the Wisconsin Supreme Court was no help. A recent decision upheld the ridiculous ruling that the appeals court issued. The court continued to maintain that in order to pursue a claim, the injured woman had to file her claim via certified mail at a place that doesn't accept certified mail. Additionally:

  • The ruling wasn't even close. Five Justices thought this was the right result, and only two said that it was not.
  • The Justices who voted for this result knew that it was absurd - "Although the result in this case is harsh, and we are sympathetic to [the victim's] unfortunate situation, her remedy simply does not lie with us." They then pass the buck, and tell her that she has to go to the legislature and get a state law changed if she wants help.
  • One of the dissenting Justices stated that the validity of claims against employees should not hinge on whether "notice of a claim was delivered by someone in a sheriff's uniform rather than a U.S. postal uniform."

Was This What The State Wanted?

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Previous versions of the statute at issue in this case allowed for "substantial compliance" with the notice requirement. That would be satisfied in this case due to the notice being delivered by hand. In the most recent changes to the statute, the legislature modified the wording of the statute to require "strict compliance," and it was that language that the Justices relied on to reach the current result. This change in wording, combined with the Attorney General no longer receiving mail at the Capitol, looks suspiciously like a way to curb cases against government employees and reduce the state's liability for the actions of its employees. This, in turn, prevents the state from paying out on claims, even when its employees were clearly wrong or reckless.

We do not mean to insinuate any misdeeds on the part of the legislature or the Attorney General; rather, we want to highlight the fact that a situation such as this makes Wisconsin look bad, and people in Wisconsin and throughout the country will begin to ask questions such as "was this was the state wanted?" unless the situation is fixed in the near future.

What Can You Do?

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Speak up! Contact your local legislators to let them know that this needs to be fixed, and spread the word.

  • Step one: Use this tool to find the contact info of your state legislators.
  • Step two: Email them and tell them that you've read about the absurd notice requirements for claims against state employees, and that either 1) the Attorney General must be required to received certified mail at the Capitol, or 2) legislators need to amend the notice statute so that personal service is allowed.
  • Step three: Show them how serious you are and how vital it is that they address this topic ASAP - follow up with a call to their office.
  • Step four: Share this post on Facebook, and spread the word to as many people as you can. Together, we can fix this!

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