Feb. 7, 2020 – A prized 1938 vehicle worth millions vanished in Milwaukee in 2001, reappearing 14 years later in Europe. Recently, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled (6-0) that a replevin action by those claiming rightful ownership was not time-barred.
The 1938 Talbot Lago was stolen from a Milwaukee business. Milwaukee police later learned that fraudulent documents were used to smuggle the vehicle to Europe, where the vintage French-manufactured automobile appeared destined to stay.
A Milwaukee man named Roy Leiske had acquired title to the vehicle in 1967 and was in the process of restoring it when it was stolen in 2001. Leiske died in 2005. Richard Mueller inherited the vehicle’s title, and sold part of his interest to Joseph Ford III.
The vehicle’s co-owners began their quest to retrieve the stolen property but had no luck until 2015, when company called TL901108 LLC (TL) bought the car from an international auto dealer and applied for title to the vehicle in Illinois. The title request triggered an alert in a stolen car database.
At that time, the car had been shipped to an auto restoration company in Massachusetts, and Mueller and Ford demanded return of the vehicle. In 2017, they filed a replevin action against TL in the Milwaukee County Circuit Court.
The circuit court dismissed the action as time barred, but the Wisconsin Court of Appeals reversed, concluding Mueller and Ford timely filed the action.
The appeals court ruled that a wrongful conversion claim accrued in 2001, when the vehicle was stolen, but a separate “wrongful detention” claim accrued when Mueller and Ford demanded return of the vehicle from TL.
In Mueller v. TL90108 LLC, 2017AP1962 (Feb. 4, 2020), the Wisconsin Supreme Court (6-0) modified but affirmed the appeals court decision, concluding the replevin action accrued – and the six-year clock started ticking – when TL purchased the vehicle in 2015.
The supreme court noted that two “statutes of repose” applied, Wis. Stat. section 893.35, concerning actions to recover personal property, and section 893.51(1), concerning actions to recover damages for wrongful detention of personal property.
A statute of repose (as opposed to a statute of limitation), Justice Brian Hagedorn explained, is not tied to when the plaintiff discovers or should have discovered the injury. A statute of repose is tied to the defendant’s action that led to the injury.
“With regard to a wrongful detention claim, the statutes focus on when the wrongful detention begins, not when the property owner discovers or knows of the detention,” Justice Hagedorn wrote.
TL argued that the only claim available was a now-time barred claim for conversion, which accrued when the vehicle was stolen. But the supreme court clarified that a wrongful detention claim was viable once TL purchased the vehicle. According to court documents, TL purchased the vehicle for $6.9 million for a European dealer.
“TL’s wrongful detention began at the time it acquired the vehicle in 2015, not when Mueller and Ford issued a demand for its return,” Justice Hagedorn wrote.
“We agree with the court of appeals that Mueller and Ford’s complaint is not barred by the six-year statues of repose, but modify it’s reasoning because TL’s wrongful detention began when TL obtained the vehicle – not when Mueller and Ford demanded its return.”