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Automobile Collisions / Workers' Compensation

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Court: Wisconsin laws in conflict in wrongful death case

Insurance disputes in wrongful death claims can take years to resolve when unsatisfied parties pursue the appeals process. Six years after a fatal car accident in Sheboygan Falls, final damages for the family of a driver killed by an uninsured motorist in a rental car remain up in the air.

A Wisconsin circuit court will re-hear the wrongful death case after a decision by the state Supreme Court that narrowly disagreed with earlier rulings. Lower courts agreed the deceased woman's insurance company was not liable to make up for shortcomings in the rental company coverage.

The auto accident was caused by a British man driving an Avis rental car. The driver had no private insurance. Car rental companies are not required under state law to pay more than $50,000 per accident or $25,000 per victim for negligence claims.

Both drivers were killed in the collision. A passenger, the teenage son of the woman who died, was injured in the deadly crash.

The woman driver carried a $500,000 provision in an Owners Insurance policy to cover under-insured and uninsured motorists. The accident victim's estate requested $450,000 from Owners, the difference between the policy amount and the Avis insurance proceeds.

The insurer refused to pay, claiming the rental car was self-insured not underinsured, according to Wisconsin statutes. The plaintiffs, which included the woman's estate and family, sued Owners and lost twice on appeal.

Justices on the state Supreme Court voted 4-3 to remand the case after deciding statutes conflicted for the rental company's liability. Owners Insurance must decide whether continued defense of the company's position is worth more than a settlement.

The children of the accident victim received $50,000, a small amount that may not begin to cover the expenses and personal loss the family experienced. Attorneys represent the interests of families in wrongful death actions so relatives are able to move forward after a loved one's death.

Source: jsonline.com, "Rental car liability laws led to 'absurd result,' Supreme Court says," Bruce Vielmetti, Feb. 1, 2013

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