June 3, 2014 – Nicholas Waranka lost his life in a snowmobile accident that occurred in Michigan. His wife filed a wrongful death action in Wisconsin but argued that Wisconsin’s $350,000 non-economic damages cap did not apply.
Recently, in Waranka v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., 2014 WI 28 (June 3, 2014), the Wisconsin Supreme Court unanimously agreed with Waranka, concluding that Michigan’s wrongful death law applies to the entire case, including damages. Michigan does not have a cap on non-economic damages.
The court noted that Wisconsin’s wrongful death statute, Wis. Stat section 895.03, does not apply to deaths caused outside the state. Thus, the court concluded that the cap on damages under section 895.04 cannot be applied separately to out-of-state deaths.
“As Wis. Stat. §§ 895.03 and 895.04 were created together and address the same subject, wrongful death, they must be read together,” wrote Justice Ann Walsh Bradley for the unanimous court. “Accordingly, we determine that Wis. Stat. § 895.04 cannot apply separately from Wis. Stat. § 895.03.”
The tragic snowmobile accident occurred in 2009. Waranka traveled to Michigan for an annual snowmobile run through the Hiawatha National Forest. The event was hosted by a Wisconsin-based business and the snowmobilers were primarily Wisconsin residents.
During the ride, a number of snowmobilers struck a snow embankment and collided after losing control. Nicholas Waranka and another snowmobiler died from the collision.
Waranka’s wife, Sharon Waranka, filed the wrongful death action in Ozaukee County, alleging that several participants were negligent in operating their snowmobiles. And she argued for a declaratory order that Michigan law applied on the damages issue.
As discussed, the supreme court ruled that Wisconsin’s wrongful death damages provision cannot apply because the accident occurred in Michigan.
But the court also noted that “an individual may bring a wrongful death action premised upon a death occurring in another state pursuant to that state’s statutes.”
Thus, Wisconsin law allowed Sharon Waranka to bring the wrongful death claims in Wisconsin, and the Wisconsin courts would apply Michigan’s wrongful death statutes.
The court noted that in Hughes v. Fetter, 341 U.S. 609 (1951), the U.S. Supreme Court allowed a wrongful death action to proceed in Wisconsin even though the death occurred in Illinois. The court noted the application of the full faith and credit clause.
“Consequently, litigants may bring suits in Wisconsin based on a death caused in another state pursuant to that state’s wrongful death statutes based on full faith and credit,” Judge Bradley wrote.
The state supreme court rejected State Farm’s argument that Wisconsin’s law should apply based on a conflict of laws analysis. The insurer noted that besides the actual occurrence giving rise to the claim, the case had limited contacts with Michigan.
But the court agreed with Waranka that no conflict analysis is necessary because “Michigan’s statute is the only applicable statute under which a wrongful death action premised on a death caused in Michigan can be maintained in Wisconsin.”