Berna-Mork v. Jones

Decision Date24 March 1993
Docket NumberNo. 90-1626,BERNA-MORK and J,90-1626
Citation174 Wis.2d 645,498 N.W.2d 221
PartiesJenniferay Mork, Plaintiffs-Respondents, v. Jane P. JONES, Milwaukee Guardian Insurance, Inc., West Bend Mutual Insurance Company, and James Doe Insurance Company, Defendants. LUMBERMEN'S MUTUAL CASUALTY COMPANY, Plaintiff-Appellant-Petitioner, v. WEST BEND MUTUAL INSURANCE COMPANY, Defendant-Respondent.
CourtWisconsin Supreme Court

For the plaintiffs-respondents, Jennifer Berna-Mork and Jay Mork, there was a brief by Steven L. Toney and Law Office of Steven L. Toney, New London.

WILCOX, Justice.

This is a review under sec. (Rule) 809.62, Stats., of a published court of appeals decision, Berna-Mork v. Jones, 165 Wis.2d 661, 478 N.W.2d 301 (Ct.App.1991), affirming a judgment dismissing Lumbermen's Mutual Casualty Company's complaint against West Bend Mutual Insurance Company. The issue is whether a worker's compensation carrier has the right to reimbursement for benefits it paid to an employee when reimbursement is sought from the uninsured motorist coverage available to the employee. We conclude that under sec. 102.29(1), Stats., 1 a worker's compensation carrier does not have the right to reimbursement from uninsured motorist coverage available to an employee because the employee's uninsured motorist claim is based on contract. We affirm.

On August 6, 1986, Jennifer Berna-Mork was injured in an automobile accident. Berna-Mork was a passenger in an automobile operated by her co-employee, Jane Jones. Jones and Berna-Mork were returning to work from lunch. While the Jones automobile was stopped in traffic, an automobile driven by Keith Plasky struck the rear of the Jones vehicle and injured Berna-Mork. The Plasky vehicle was not insured and Plasky was granted a discharge in bankruptcy.

Berna-Mork filed a worker's compensation claim for benefits on account of her injuries. Lumbermen's is the worker's compensation insurer of her employer. Lumbermen's paid worker's compensation benefits to Berna-Mork pursuant to an order of the Department of Industry, Labor and Human Relations.

Berna-Mork brought a third-party action in tort against Plasky, Jones and Jones' liability and uninsured motorist carrier, West Bend Mutual Insurance Company. Lumbermen's commenced an action against West Bend to participate in the third-party action. Lumbermen's alleges that pursuant to sec. 102.29(1), Stats. it is entitled to reimbursement from West Bend's uninsured motorist coverage for worker's compensation benefits Lumbermen's paid to Berna-Mork. The two actions were consolidated.

The trial court granted summary judgment dismissing Lumbermen's action against West Bend on grounds that the grant of authority for subrogation found in sec. 102.29(1), Stats., does not extend to actions involving uninsured motorist coverage because such actions are contractual as opposed to actions in tort. Lumbermen's appealed. The court of appeals affirmed. The court of appeals held that Lumbermen's had no right to subrogation against West Bend under sec. 102.29(1) because the employee's right to uninsured motorist coverage is contractual.

When reviewing a summary judgment decision, this court is required to apply the standards set forth in sec. 802.08, Stats., in the same manner as the trial court. Voss v. City of Middleton, 162 Wis.2d 737, 748, 470 N.W.2d 625 (1991).

The question before this court involves the interpretation and application of sec. 102.29(1), Stats. A question of statutory interpretation is a question of law which this court decides independently and without deference to the reasoning of the lower courts. Voss, 162 Wis.2d at 749, 470 N.W.2d 625.

In this case we are asked to determine whether sec. 102.29(1), Stats., permits a worker's compensation carrier to seek reimbursement from the uninsured motorist coverage available to the injured employee. The aim of all statutory interpretation is to discern the intent of the legislature. Id. In ascertaining that intent, the first resort is to the language of the statute itself. Id. If it clearly and unambiguously sets forth the legislative intent, it is the duty of the court to apply that intent to the case at hand and not look beyond the language of the statute to ascertain its meaning. Id. However, if the language of the statute does not unambiguously set forth the legislative intent, the court will resort to judicial construction of the statute to ascertain and carry out the legislative intent. Id.

The language of sec. 102.29(1), Stats., is clear and unambiguous. The statute provides that, "[t]he employer or compensation insurer ... shall have the same right to make a claim or maintain an action in tort against any other party...." (emphasis added). The statutory language clearly and unambiguously sets forth that the subrogation rights of the employer or compensation insurer are limited to claims in tort. Claims based on contract are not permitted.

An action on uninsured motorist coverage is based on contract; although in order to recover, the insured must prove the negligence of the uninsured motorist. Sahloff v. Western Casualty & Surety Co., 45 Wis.2d 60, 70, 171 N.W.2d 914 (1969); Employers Health Insurance v. General Casualty Company of Wisconsin, 161 Wis.2d 937, 951, 469 N.W.2d 172 (1991). Lumbermen's cannot maintain an action against West Bend's uninsured motorist coverage because such an action is based on contract and precluded under sec. 102.29(1), Stats.

We hold that under sec. 102.29(1), Stats., an employer or compensation insurer has no right to subrogation against uninsured motorist benefits available to the employee because an action for uninsured motorist benefits is based on contract not tort. The majority of jurisdictions that have considered this issue agree with our conclusion and reasoning. See March v. Pekin Ins. Co., 465 N.W.2d 852 (Iowa 1991); Barker v. Palmarin, 799 S.W.2d 117 (Mo.Ct.App.1990); Jones v. Firemen's Relief and Pension Board, 48 Wash.App. 262, 738 P.2d 1068 (1987); Merchants Mut. Ins. Group v. Orthopedic Professional Assoc., 124 N.H. 648, 480 A.2d 840 (1984); Bill Hodges Truck Co., Inc. v. Humphrey, 704 P.2d 94 (Okla.Ct.App.1984); Cooper v. Younkin, 339 N.W.2d 552 (Minn.1983); Knight v. Insurance Co. of North America, 647 F.2d 127 (10th Cir.1981); State Compensation Insurance Fund v. Commercial Union Ins. Co., 631 P.2d 1168 (Colo.Ct.App.1981); State Farm Mut. Ins. Co. v. Fireman's Fund American Ins. Co., 550 S.W.2d 554 (Ky.1977); Courson v. Maryland Casualty Co., 475 F.2d 1030 (8th Cir.1973); Travelers Ins. Co. v. National Farmers Union Property and Casualty Co., 252 Ark. 624, 480 S.W.2d 585 (1972); State Farm Mutual Auto. Ins. Co. v. Cahoon, 287 Ala. 462, 252 So.2d 619 (1971); Horne v. Superior Life Ins. Co., 203 Va. 282, 123 S.E.2d 401 (1962); See also 2A Arthur Larson, The Law of Workmen's Compensation sec. 71.23(a), n. 27 (1992).

Lumbermen's argues that an uninsured motorist claim is based in tort and satisfies sec. 102.29(1) Stats., because the claimant must first establish her legal entitlement to recover damages from the uninsured tort-feasor. We are not persuaded by Lumbermen's reasoning. It is now well established that a claim for uninsured motorist benefits is a claim based on contract. Sahloff, 45 Wis.2d at 70, 171 N.W.2d 914; Employers Health, 161 Wis.2d at 951, 469 N.W.2d 172. An uninsured motorist insurer is not a wrongdoer. Employers Health, 161 Wis.2d at 951, 469 N.W.2d 172. The uninsured motorist insurer's responsibility to compensate the claimant arises from the insurance contract and the uninsured motorist statute. Id. 161 Wis.2d at 947, 469 N.W.2d 172.

Lumbermen's claims a right to equitable subrogation. The purpose of the doctrine of subrogation is to avoid unjust enrichment. Equitable subrogation rests on the principles that someone other than a volunteer who pays for the wrong of another should be permitted to look to the wrongdoer to the extent that he has paid a debt or demand which should have been paid by the wrongdoer. Hamed v. County of Milwaukee, 108 Wis.2d 257, 264, 321 N.W.2d 199 (1982). Lumbermen's, however, is not seeking reimbursement from a wrongdoer. As mentioned above, West Bend as the uninsured motorist insurer does not stand in the shoes of the uninsured motorist. West Bend is not a tortfeasor; therefore, subrogation cannot exist against it. Statutory liability without any finding of wrongdoing does not provide a sufficient bases for subrogation. Employers Health, 161 Wis.2d at 951, 469 N.W.2d 172.

Lumbermen's contends that a distinction should be made between cases in which the employee purchased the uninsured motorist policy and cases where the uninsured motorist policy was purchased by someone other than the employee. Lumbermen's asserts that the injured employee is entitled to all of the uninsured motorist funds when she pays for the uninsured motorist policy out of her own pocket, but not when someone else picks up the coverage for her. We disagree. The language of sec. 102.29(1), Stats., provides no basis for such a distinction. That section permits subrogation in tort claims only. Regardless who pays the premium, uninsured motorist coverage is simply a contract for the payment of a sum measured by the amount of damages the insured is legally entitled to recover from an uninsured third-party tortfeasor. Section 102.29(1) simply does not permit subrogation in an action on an uninsured motorist contract. Cooper, 339 N.W.2d at 553-54; Knight, 647 F.2d at...

To continue reading

Request your trial
19 cases
  • Estate of Kriefall v. Sizzler USA Franchise, Inc.
    • United States
    • Wisconsin Supreme Court
    • 29 Junio 2012
    ...Ellsworth v. Schelbrock, 2000 WI 63, ¶ 19, 235 Wis.2d 678, 611 N.W.2d 764; and (3) equitable subrogation, Berna–Mork v. Jones, 174 Wis.2d 645, 652–53, 498 N.W.2d 221 (1993).Id., ¶ 37. ¶ 38 Here, E & B seeks to exercise Federal Insurance's right to subrogation for the $1 million payment Fede......
  • Steffens v. Bluecross Blueshield of Ill.
    • United States
    • Wisconsin Supreme Court
    • 8 Julio 2011
    ...Ellsworth v. Schelbrock, 2000 WI 63, ¶ 19, 235 Wis.2d 678, 611 N.W.2d 764; and (3) equitable subrogation, Berna–Mork v. Jones, 174 Wis.2d 645, 652–53, 498 N.W.2d 221 (1993). We also note that it has been opined that all subrogation “rights are governed by equitable principles” to some degre......
  • Foster v. Regent Ins. Co.
    • United States
    • Wisconsin Court of Appeals
    • 26 Julio 2016
    ...or compensation insurer are limited to claims in tort and that claims based on contract are not permitted.” Foster claims Berna–Mork v. Jones, 174 Wis.2d 645, 498 N.W.2d 221 (1993), rejected concerns about the potential for double recovery under such circumstances, stating, “Even if a doubl......
  • Threshermens Mut. Ins. Co. v. Page
    • United States
    • Wisconsin Supreme Court
    • 5 Mayo 1998
    ...N.W.2d 311 (Ct.App.1981) (citing City of West Allis v. Rainey, 36 Wis.2d 489, 496, 153 N.W.2d 514 (1967)). In Berna-Mork v. Jones, 174 Wis.2d 645, 651, 498 N.W.2d 221 (1993), this court held that the language of Wis. Stat. § 102.29(1) is clear and unambiguous. The statute clearly grants an ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT