Wis. Appeals Court Revives Wrongful Death Lawsuit

February 8, 2007

A Wisconsin state appeals court has revived a wrongful death lawsuit in a dispute over whether a family and its insurance company could be liable because a teenager who drove through a stop sign and caused a fatal crash was baby-sitting for them.

An Outagamie County judge erred when he dismissed the lawsuit filed following the crash nearly three years ago, the 3rd District Court of Appeals said.

Circuit Judge Joseph Troy ruled there was not a “master-servant relationship” between the teen and the family. But the appeals court said facts in the case were “subject to conflicting interpretations,” and the panel ordered further proceedings.

According to court records, Michael Ruhland, then 18, of Hilbert, was driving a car owned by his father May 27, 2004, when he went through a stop sign while talking on a cell phone and hit another car, killing Scott Bergene of Newton.

Bergene’s widow filed a wrongful death lawsuit, naming Ruhland and his insurance company, and William and Lori Kumbalek, also of Hilbert, and their insurance company as defendants.

The lawsuit claimed the Kumbaleks were liable, too, because Ruhland was returning from picking up their youngest child from day care at the time of the crash as their baby sitter, court records said.

Ruhland had begun providing babysitting and landscaping services for the couple as a summer job earlier in May 2004, earning $6 an hour, court records said.

Ruhland said he picked up the child on the day of the crash at Mrs. Kumbalek’s request, believing he was on duty as a babysitter at the time, court records said. But Mrs. Kumbalek claimed Ruhland asked to pick up the child to take him to a picnic at Ruhland’s parents’ house and he was never paid for that service, court records said.

The three-judge appeals court said Tuesday it was unclear to what extent the Kumbaleks exercised control over Ruhland, especially at the time of the accident, raising questions whether he was a servant or independent contractor.

“This is a disputed material fact that makes summary judgment inappropriate,” the panel said. “A master is liable for the negligent acts of his or her servant.”

The next step in the case is a jury trial, said Peter Hickey, an attorney for the Kumbaleks, declining further comment.

Mark Sewall, an attorney for the widow, did not immediately return a telephone message Tuesday.

According to court records, Ruhland’s insurance company, Secura Insurance, paid the policy limits of its liability coverage for the accident.

Secura is also listed as the insurance company for the Kumbaleks.

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