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Two Years or Three Years? How Wisconsin’s Statute of Limitations Depends on the Type of Accident

Deadlines matter when it comes to any legal matter. When it comes to filing a Wisconsin personal injury lawsuit, there is an important statutory deadline known as the statute of limitations. This is the deadline by which the plaintiff–the person alleging they suffered an injury due to someone else’s negligent or intentional actions–must file their lawsuit in state court. Any lawsuit filed outside of the statute of limitations must generally be dismissed by the court, regardless of the merits of the case.

Wisconsin’s statute of limitations for personal injury claims can get a bit confusing as there are separate deadlines depending on the type of accident involved. The general statute of limitations for personal injury is 3 years from the date of the accident or injury. This includes injuries “arising from an accident involving a motor vehicle.” But if someone is killed in a motor vehicle accident, the victim’s estate has just 2 years to file a wrongful death claim. If the fatal accident did not involve a motor vehicle, however, then the general 3-year limitations period applies. A Wisconsin personal injury lawyer can help you understand the details of the law.

Wisconsin Appeals Court Dismisses Wrongful Death Claim Filed After Fatal Trailer Accident

You might think it is easy enough to figure out whether the 2-year or 3-year statute of limitations applies to a given wrongful death case. But sometimes there are factual gray areas that need to be resolved through litigation. The Wisconsin Court of Appeals recently confronted a case. In Estate of Wiemer v. Zeeland Farm Services, a man died after falling into a trailer attached to a semi-truck. The question for the appellate court was whether this qualified as a fatal accident “involving a motor vehicle.”

Here is what happened. In September 2019, a co-op ordered roughly 25 tons of corn gluten from one of the defendants in this case. The shipment was scheduled for delivery three days later. Another defendant was then hired to transport the corn gluten from Iowa to Wisconsin. This defendant, in turn, hired a subcontractor to load, transport, and unload the shipment.

The tractor-trailer arrived on schedule at the co-op’s facility. The driver moved the tractor-trailer such that the trailer’s gravity feed bin would dump the corn gluten into a conveyor pit. This process would occur naturally due to gravity once the bottom of the trailer was opened. It did not require the use of the truck’s motor.

As it turned out, some of the corn gluten compacted during transport. In other words, it did not drain out of the trailer once the door was opened. The victim, who worked for the co-op, then climbed on top of the trailer to break up the compacted corn gluten. Unfortunately, during this attempt he fell into the body of the trailer and was trapped under the flow of the corn gluten. He was effectively smothered to death by the cargo.

The victim’s estate subsequently filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the defendants–the companies responsible for the transport of the cargo–in March 2022. (The co-op was not a defendant, presumably because any claims against it would be covered under Wisconsin workers’ compensation law.) The lawsuit was filed within the general 3-year statute of limitations but not the 2-year period applicable to wrongful death claims arising from motor vehicle accidents. The estate maintained the 3-year deadline applied. The defendants argued the 2-year deadline applied, and thus the estate’s lawsuit should be barred as a matter of law.

The trial judge considered the arguments and determined that while the tractor-trailer itself was a “motor vehicle” as defined by Wisconsin law, the fatal accident itself did not “involve” a motor vehicle. The court noted that the estate’s lawsuit did not allege any negligence with respect to the “actual driving” or “actual operation” of the tractor-trailer as a motor vehicle. Indeed, the “decision as to what trailer to hail the product in [did] not necessarily involve a motor vehicle.” As such, the trial court said the estate could proceed under the 3-year statute of limitations.

The defendants appealed that ruling. In an August 2023 decision, a three-judge panel of the Wisconsin Court of Appeals reversed the trial judge and held the lawsuit had to be dismissed under the 2-year statute of limitations. Like the trial judge, the Court of Appeals agreed with the defendants that the tractor-trailer itself was a “motor vehicle.” The cargo trailer was part of that motor vehicle as it remained attached to the truck component during the fatal accident. The appellate court noted that the law recognizes a “combination” of two vehicles in this manner as a “motor vehicle,” even if the trailer alone lacked a motor.

More to the point, the Court of Appeals held the trial judge read the phrase “involving a motor vehicle” in the statute of limitations too narrowly. The trial court believed that meant the vehicle had to be “e in motion, illegally parked, parked without lights on, [or[ something like that.” The Court of Appeals said the ordinary meaning of the term “involving,” however, only meant the motor vehicle had to be “engaged as a participant in the accident.” In this case, the accident occurred when the victim fell into the trailer component of a motor vehicle. As such, his death involved a motor vehicle, and the estate’s lawsuit could not proceed because it was filed outside of the 2-year statute of limitations.

Contact a Wisconsin Personal Injury Lawyer Today

Time is not on your side when it comes to filing any kind of personal injury lawsuit. That is why you should never delay in seeking legal advice from a qualified Wisconsin personal injury lawyer. Call Fitzpatrick, Skemp & Butler, LLC, today at (608) 784-4370 or contact us online to request a free consultation and to get the legal help you need.