April 11, 2013 – A Wisconsin court must apply Michigan’s wrongful death statute in an action stemming from a tragic snowmobile accident that occurred in Michigan, a state appeals court has ruled, rejecting arguments that would limit the plaintiff’s remedies.
Specifically, the District II Wisconsin Court of Appeals in Waranka v. Wadena Ins. Co. et al., 2012AP320 (April 10, 2013), held that Wisconsin’s wrongful death statute does not apply, at all, to deaths caused outside Wisconsin. Other state law applies.
In 2009, a group of Wisconsin residents traveled to Michigan for an annual snowmobile run through the Hiawatha National Forest. One morning, numerous riders collided at an intersection, and Wisconsin resident Nicholas Waranka suffered fatal head injuries.
His wife, Sharon Waranka, filed a wrongful death action against five individuals, alleging negligence in the operation of their snowmobiles. Four of the defendants are Wisconsin residents, and four have snowmobile insurance policies that were issued in Wisconsin.
Waranka moved the court to apply Michigan’s wrongful death statute. The defendants argued for application of Wisconsin’s wrongful death statute, Wis. Stat. section 895.04, which limits loss of companionship damages to $350,000 per occurrence for adults.
Michigan law does not cap noneconomic damages for wrongful death. The court or a jury decides what is “fair and equitable” under the circumstances.
The Ozaukee County Circuit Court sided with the defendants. It ruled that Michigan’s law creates a cause of action, but Wisconsin law determines remedies and damages.
A three-judge appeals court panel noted that Wisconsin’s wrongful death law only applies to deaths caused in Wisconsin, but “Wisconsin courts must allow plaintiffs to sue under another interested state’s law where no Wisconsin law provides for the action and Wisconsin has no public policy against recovery,” Judge Lisa Neubauer wrote.
Additionally, it ruled that Michigan law, not Wisconsin law, determines remedies and damages. “Once the circuit court determined that Michigan law applied, providing Sharon a cause of action, the Michigan statute also provided the law defining that cause of action, including remedies,” wrote Judge Neubauer.
Thus, the court reversed that part of the circuit court’s ruling that called for application of Michigan law to determine remedies and damages.