July 25, 2018 – A 1938 Talbot Lago, worth more than $7 million, went missing 17 years ago. Milwaukee police learned the vehicle was shipped to Europe based on fraudulent documents. Recently, those claiming ownership moved one step closer to recovering it.
In Mueller v. TL90108 LLC, 2017AP1962 (July 24, 2018), a three-judge panel for the District I Appeals Court ruled that a six-year statute of limitations does not bar the plaintiffs from seeking recovery of the vehicle through a replevin action.
The Milwaukee County Circuit Court had ruled that the action was time-barred. Wis. Stat. section 893.35 says that in actions to recover personal property, the action must be commenced within six years after the action accrues, and the action “accrues” at the time the wrongful taking or conversion occurs, or the wrongful detention begins.
Since the car was stolen in 2001, the circuit court ruled that the plaintiffs, Richard Mueller and Joseph Ford III, could not proceed on an action to recover the 1938 Talbot Lago, a rare automobile built by French coachbuilder Figoni et Falaschi.
Mueller had inherited an ownership interest in the vehicle from Roy Leiske, who died in 2005, and sold part of his interest to Ford as the two tried to uncover its whereabouts.
Leiske bought the car in 1967 and obtained a certificate of title from the Wisconsin Department of Motor Vehicles in 1968. Leiske was restoring the car at his business in Milwaukee. In 2001, he discovered that his office was ransacked and the car was gone.
Witnesses said they saw two men loading a truck earlier that day, and police discovered that it was shipped to Europe using false documents. Then in 2016, a break in the case.
TL90108 LLC (TL) bought the car from international auto dealers and applied for a title to the vehicle in Illinois, which triggered an alert in a stolen car database.
Milwaukee police informed the plaintiffs that the local authorities had placed a hold on the vehicle, which had been shipped to a restoration outfit in Massachusetts. Mueller and Ford demanded return of the vehicle before filing the replevin action against TL.
After the circuit court dismissed the action as time-barred, Ford and Mueller filed an appeal. The three-judge appeals panel reversed, concluding that the six-year statute of limitations period starting ticking when Mueller and Ford demanded the vehicle from TL in 2016. The plaintiffs filed the replevin action in 2017, well within the six-year period.
That is, the appeals court ruled that the statute of limitations period began to run when the plaintiffs learned of a possible “wrongful detention,” not when it was stolen.
The appeals court concluded that the statute “creates a cause of action for wrongful detention separate from the cause of action for conversion, that the time the cause of action accrues is based on the alleged wrongful act by the defendant, and that the same property can be converted by one party and wrongfully detained by another.”
In other words, Mueller and Ford were time-barred from a replevin action against those who wrongfully converted (stole) the vehicle, but once they learned that TL may have wrongfully detained the vehicle, and they had six years to file suit to attempt recovery.
“No case applying the statute precludes the application of the common ordinary meaning of the words of the statute to this factual situation,” wrote Judge Kitty Brennan.
“In this case, the alleged wrongful detention began when TL allegedly wrongfully detained the car after plaintiffs’ demand for return of the car.”