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Gilbertson v. De Long

April 3, 1962


Author: Knoch

Before HASTINGS, Chief Judge, and KNOCH and SWYGERT, Circuit Judges.

KNOCH, Circuit Judge.

This appeal involves interpretation of Section 343.15 of the Wisconsin Statutes, which provides under sub-section (2), as follows:

"Any negligence or wilful misconduct of a person under the age of 18 years when operating a motor vehicle upon the highways is imputed to the person who signed the application for such person's license. The person who so signed is jointly and severally liable with such operator for any damages caused by such negligent or wilful misconduct."

The action in the Court below arose out of an automobile accident in which plaintiff June Gilbertson was injured. The undisputed facts are that she was a passenger in an automobile driven by her minor son, William Gilbertson, which collided with an automobile driven by defendant, Clifford DeLong. The jury attributed causal negligence: 40% to William Gilbertson and 60% to Clifford DeLong. Judgment was entered on that verdict.

It was stipulated that Mrs. Gilbertson had sponsored her son's driver's license, and that the automobile which he was driving was insured by appellee, Mutual Service Casualty Company.

Mutual Service Casualty Company filed a motion to vacate the judgment and dismiss the complaint, as to Mutual Service Casualty Company, on the ground that Mrs. Gilbertson's sponsorship of her son made her equally negligent with him, as his negligence was imputed to her by the statute quoted above. The District Court granted that motion, and this appeal followed.

Appellant argues that the sponsorship statute adopted a limited doctrine of imputed negligence or respondeat superior standard, which should have no application between principal and agent, master and servant, partners or participants in a joint enterprise. Appellant's position is that the intent of the legislature is controlling in the construction of a statute; that the legislative purpose of this statute is to protect the public against damage by youthful drivers [Employers Mutual Fire Insurance Co. v. Haucke (1954) 267 Wis. 72, 64 N.W.2d 426]; that the statute should not be applied outside of the reasonable contemplation of the legislature; and that injury to the sponsor is outside such reasonable contemplation of the legislature. Employers Mutual Fire Insurance Co. v. Haucke supra; Connell v. Luck (1953) 264 Wis. 282, 58 N.W.2d 633.

In the Haucke case, the Court held that plaintiff insurance company was entitled to recover from the sponsor sums which it had paid to its insured, one Ferguson, for damages sustained when the sponsored licensee Haucke stole the Ferguson automobile and wrecked it while attempting to escape capture. The Court in Haucke said at page 75, 64 N.W.2d at page 428:

"The legislative purpose of the law is plain. What the statute is intended to do is protect the public from damage caused by the negligent operation of vehicles by youthful drivers. Nothing in its language indicates that such protection is limited to other users of the highway. In our opinion a literal interpretation of the statute leads to no absurd result. On the contrary, such construction extends protection to all the public, as the legislature intended. Why should not the person whose car is stolen be protected the same as others who suffer damage as the result of a minor driver's negligence?"

The Connell case concerned a farm tractor. The Court there stated that if giving a statute its plain and unambiguous literal meaning resulted in an absurdity, so as to involve the legislative purpose in obscurity, construction would be necessary. The Court in Connell found that the statute was a highway safety measure; that it was broad enough to cover farm tractors being operated on highways, but not in hayfields. As the District Judge in the instant case said:

"The language of the statute is clear and unambiguous. It attaches liability to the parent sponsor for any negligence in the operation of an automobile by his or her child, and under its provisions a parent who signed an application for an instruction permit of a child under eighteen years of age is made liable for the negligent or unlawful conduct of such minor in operating a motor vehicle upon the highways. [citing Klatt v. Zera (1960) 11 Wis. 2d 415, 424, 105 N.W.2d 776]

"The statute contains no exception. It makes no provision for any exemption for injuries or damages sustained by the sponsor parent."

Nor has the legislature prescribed that imputed negligence under this statute be applied as between principal and ...

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