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    Wisconsin Lawyer
    July 01, 2014

    Supreme Court Digest

    In this column, Prof. Daniel Blinka and Prof. Thomas Hammer summarize all decisions of the Wisconsin Supreme Court (except those involving lawyer or judicial discipline).

    Prof. Daniel D. Blinka & Prof. Thomas J. Hammer

    Criminal Procedure

    Record Expunction  – Court Must Order at Sentencing

    State v. Matasek, 2014 WI 27 (filed 23 May 2014)

    HOLDING: A circuit court’s discretion to order expunction of a criminal record must be exercised at the sentencing proceeding.

    Daniel D. BlinkaProf. Daniel D. Blinka, U.W. 1978, is a professor of law at Marquette University Law School, Milwaukee.

    Thomas J. HammerProf. Thomas J. Hammer, Marquette 1975, is a law professor and Director of Clinical Education at Marquette University Law School, Milwaukee.

    SUMMARY: The expunction statute provides that if an offender is under age 25 when he or she commits a crime and if he or she has been found guilty of violating a law for which the maximum period of imprisonment is six years or less, a circuit court may order “at the time of sentencing” the expunction of a record after the offender’s successful completion of the sentence. See Wis. Stat. § 973.015(1)(a).

    This case required the supreme court to determine when a circuit court is to exercise its discretion to expunge a record. The defendant argued that the controlling statute allows a court to delay the expunction decision until the offender’s successful completion of the sentence. The circuit court concluded that the decision must be made at sentencing. In a published decision, the court of appeals agreed. See 2013 WI App 63.

    In a unanimous decision authored by Chief Justice Abrahamson, the supreme court affirmed the court of appeals. It concluded as a matter of statutory construction that the phrase “at the time of sentencing” as used in Wis. Stat. section 973.015 means that “if a circuit court is going to exercise its discretion to expunge a record, the discretion must be exercised at the time of the sentencing proceeding” (¶ 6). This is the proceeding at which the disposition of the case is determined, including a disposition of probation (as occurred in the present case) (see ¶¶ 24-39).


    Wrongful Death – Damages

    Waranka v. Wadena Ins. Co., 2014 WI 28 (filed 3 June 2014)

    HOLDING: Wisconsin’s wrongful-death statutes, Wis. Stat. sections 895.03 and 895.04, do not apply to a death that occurs out of state; rather, the wrongful-death action here was governed by the law of the state where the death occurred (Michigan).

    SUMMARY: The plaintiff’s husband was killed while snowmobiling in Michigan. The plaintiff sued several persons in the snowmobile group, all Wisconsin residents, for negligence and damages. She also moved for a summary judgment determination that Michigan’s wrongful-death statute, not Wisconsin’s, governed the action. The circuit court ruled that Michigan law provided a wrongful-death cause of action but that Wisconsin law capping damages nonetheless applied.

    In a published decision, the court of appeals agreed that Michigan’s wrongful-death statute applied, but reversed on the cap issue, holding that Wis. Stat. section 895.04, which governs the terms and limits of wrongful-death actions, “could not be applied separately from Wisconsin’s wrongful death statute, Wis. Stat. § 895.03” (¶ 13). See 2013 WI App 56.

    The supreme court affirmed in a unanimous opinion authored by Justice Bradley. “If no Wisconsin wrongful death cause of action arises under Wis. Stat. § 895.03, the language of Wis. Stat. §§ 895.03 and 895.04, our case law interpreting both statutes, their statutory history, and the canon of statutory construction, in pari materia, dictate that Wis. Stat. § 895.04 terms and limitations do not apply” (¶ 19). Put differently, Wis. Stat. sections 895.03 and 895.04 are “inextricably intertwined” (¶ 20). Case law has “declined” to consider the two statutes separately (¶ 21) and has construed them “as one unit” (¶ 23). Principles of statutory construction buttress this conclusion (see ¶ 26).

    As for damages, the court held that there was no conflict between Michigan and Wisconsin law, and that Michigan law controlled. Michigan has no caps on wrongful-death damages; juries are to determine what is “fair and equitable.” “Wisconsin Stat. § 895.04 differs from the Michigan statute in that it places a monetary cap on the amount of non-economic damages a plaintiff may recover. However …Wis. Stat. § 895.04 does not apply independently from Wis. Stat. § 895.03, and Wis. Stat. § 895.03 does not apply to deaths caused outside of the state. Thus, there is no applicable wrongful death statute from Wisconsin that conflicts with Michigan’s wrongful death statute” (¶ 33).

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