Hechimovich v. Acuity, Ins. Co.

Decision Date27 December 2013
Docket NumberNo. 2013AP1011.,2013AP1011.
Citation2014 WI App 14,842 N.W.2d 493,352 Wis.2d 513
PartiesWendi HECHIMOVICH, Plaintiff–Appellant, v. ACUITY, a Mutual Insurance Company and Joseph C. Westra, Defendants–Respondents.
CourtWisconsin Court of Appeals


On behalf of the plaintiff-appellant, the cause was submitted on the briefs of Kenneth J. Quincey and Katherine Koepsell of Quincey, Becker, Schuessler, Chase & Devitt, S.C., Beaver Dam.

On behalf of the defendant-respondent Acuity, a Mutual Insurance Company, the cause was submitted on the brief of Julius W. Gernes and Erica A. Weber of Donna Law Firm, P.C., Minneapolis, MN.



¶ 1 This case calls on the court to construe and apply Wisconsin's financial responsibility law, Wis. Stat. ch. 344,1 to an insurance policy that was issued in conformity with that law. The parties dispute whether the policy here, issued by Acuity to Joseph Westra, provides coverage for the injuries that Wendi Hechimovich sustained in a motorcycle accident involving Westra. Hechimovich filed a claim to recover the policy's liability limits, and Acuity denied coverage based on its interpretation of Wis. Stat. § 344.33(9). Hechimovich then filed this action for a declaratory judgment that Westra's Acuity policy provided coverage for her claim. On summary judgment, the circuit court agreed with Acuity's interpretation of § 344.33(9) and concluded that Acuity was not required to provide coverage. The circuit court denied Hechimovich's motion for reconsideration, and Hechimovich appeals. We conclude that Acuity is required to provide coverage based on our interpretation of § 344.33(9). Accordingly, we reverse the circuit court's orders and remand the case for entry of summary judgment in favor of Hechimovich as to her claim for coverage.


¶ 2 The relevant facts are undisputed. In July 2011, Hechimovich was a passenger on a motorcycle that Westra was operating. Westra did not own the motorcycle, but he was operating it with the permission of the owner. The motorcycle collided with a truck, and Hechimovich suffered physical injuries as a result.

¶ 3 To date, Hechimovich has recovered the policy limits of the following policies: $50,000 from the motorcycle owner's insurancepolicy; $150,000 from the truck driver's insurance policy; $100,000 from Hechimovich's uninsured motorist policy; and $100,000 from Westra's State Farm insurance policy. Her total recovery is less than her medical and hospital expenses, which exceed $700,000.

¶ 4 On the date of the accident, Westra was also insured under a liability policy issued by Acuity. Westra's Acuity policy provided $50,000 of coverage for bodily injury to each person. Westra's Acuity policy was issued pursuant to Wis. Stat. §§ 344.31 and 344.33, which are part of Wisconsin's financial responsibility law. Upon issuing the policy to Westra, Acuity completed a Financial Responsibility Certificate and filed the Certificate with the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, which allowed Westra to remain or become a licensed driver.

¶ 5 Hechimovich filed a demand to recover the liability limits of Westra's Acuity policy. Acuity denied coverage. Subsequently, Hechimovich filed this action for a declaratory judgment requiring Acuity to pay Hechimovich the liability limits of $50,000. The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. The circuit court granted summary judgment in favor of Acuity, concluding that “as long as the policy requirements of [the financial responsibility law] are met[,] statutory compliance is achieved,” in that coverage above the $50,000 required by the law was paid “by State Farm and therefore the proclaimed objectives of that law have been met.”

Wisconsin's Financial Responsibility Law

¶ 6 Wisconsin's financial responsibility law relating to vehicles is codified at Wis. Stat. ch. 344, and comprises six subchapters. The subchapter relevant to this appeal is entitled, “Proof of Financial Responsibility for the Future,” and its purpose is “to provide a method of compensating [third parties] for damages that may result from future accidents caused by [the] negligence of [an] operator with a poor driving record.” Cardinal v. Leader Nat. Ins. Co., 166 Wis.2d 375, 390, 480 N.W.2d 1 (1992). Under this subchapter, ‘drivers whose licenses have been revoked because of their poor driving records are required to show proof of financial responsibility to have their operators licenses reinstated.’ Beerbohm v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 2000 WI App 105, ¶ 12, 235 Wis.2d 182, 612 N.W.2d 338 (quoted source omitted). “Drivers can meet this requirement by providing certification that they have obtained liability insurance that meets the requirements of § 344.33.” Id.

¶ 7 Under Wis. Stat. § 344.33, a policy issued for the purpose of complying with the financial responsibility law must “insure the person named therein using any motor vehicle with the express or implied permission of the owner.” Wis. Stat. § 344.33(2). Additionally, under the version of ch. 344 in effect when Hechimovich was injured, the policy was required to provide $50,000 of coverage for the bodily injury to or death of one person in any one accident. SeeWis. Stat. § 344.01(2)(am)2. (2009–10).

¶ 8 Under Wis. Stat. § 344.33(9), [t]he requirements for a motor vehicle liability policy may be fulfilled by the policies of one or more insurers which policies together meet such requirements.” A ‘motor vehicle liability policy’ means a motor vehicle policy of liability insurance, certified as provided in s. 344.31 as proof of financial responsibility for the future.” Wis. Stat. § 344.33(1).

Acuity's Insurance Policy

¶ 9 After issuing the policy at issue in this appeal, Acuity filed with the Wisconsin Department of Transportation a “financial responsibility certificate” certifying that the policy had been issued “as required by the financial responsibility laws of this State.” The parties refer in their arguments to three provisions in that certified policy. First, the certified policy provides, “When [Acuity] certif[ies] this policy as proof under a financial responsibility law, it will comply with the law to the extent of the coverage and limits of liability required by law.” Second, the certified policy provides, “insurance afforded ... for a vehicle [Westra] do[es] not own is excess over any other collectible auto liability insurance.” Finally, the certified policy contains an exclusion: “This coverage does not apply to bodily injury to a person ... [o]ccupying a motorized vehicle with less than four wheels.”

Standards of Review

¶ 10 It is well established that we review a grant of summary judgment de novo, employing the same methodology as the circuit court. Palisades Collection LLC v. Kalal, 2010 WI App 38, ¶ 9, 324 Wis.2d 180, 781 N.W.2d 503. A party is entitled to summary judgment if there is no genuine issue of material fact and that party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Wis. Stat. § 802.08(2).

¶ 11 The parties agree that there is no genuine issue of material fact in this case. Acuity asks us to affirm the circuit court's grant of summary judgment in its favor because the circuit court properly interpreted Wis. Stat. § 344.33(9) and found that Acuity was not required to provide coverage to Hechimovich under Westra's policy. Hechimovich asks us to reverse the circuit court's grant of summary judgment in favor of Acuity. Based on our interpretation of § 344.33(9), as explained below, we conclude that Hechimovich is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

¶ 12 The parties agree that this case turns on the proper interpretation of Wis. Stat. § 344.33(9). Statutory interpretation is a question of law that we review de novo. Juneau Cnty. v. Associated Bank, N.A., 2013 WI App 29, ¶ 15, 346 Wis.2d 264, 828 N.W.2d 262. The purpose of statutory interpretation is to discern the intent of the legislature. Id., ¶ 16. When we interpret a statute, we begin with the statute's plain language, as we assume the legislature's intent is expressed in the words it used. Id. In addition, [w]e interpret statutory language in the context in which it is used, [and] in relation to the language of surrounding or closely-related statutes.” Id. If this process of interpretation yields a plain meaning, the statute is unambiguous, and we apply its plain meaning. State v. Harmon, 2006 WI App 214, ¶ 10, 296 Wis.2d 861, 723 N.W.2d 732.

Interpretation of Wis. Stat. § 344.33(9)

¶ 13 Acuity argues that it is not required to provide coverage to Hechimovich based on its interpretation of Wis. Stat. § 344.33(9). Acuity asserts that, under § 344.33(9), other insurance policies can satisfy the requirements of the financial responsibility law. Specifically, Acuity argues that the $100,000 of coverage provided by Westra's State Farm policy satisfies the financial responsibility law's requirements under § 344.33(9). Therefore, Acuity contends that its policy provisions, and not the requirements of the financial responsibility law, “should apply to govern any arguable additional coverage.”

¶ 14 As stated above, the policy provides that, insurance “for a vehicle you do not own is excess over any other collectible auto liability insurance,” and excludes coverage for injury or damages “resulting from ... use of a motorized vehicle with less than four wheels.” Tracking these two provisions, Acuity argues that there is an initial grant of coverage under its excess coverage provision because the value of the claims exceeds the payouts from other collectible insurance, but that the Acuity fewer-than-four-wheels exclusion precludes coverage because Westra was operating a motorcycle when the accident occurred.

¶ 15 Acuity's argument may make sense if its policy were not a certified financial responsibility policy. See Beerbohm, 235 Wis.2d 182, ¶ 10, 612 N.W.2d 338 (where policy excluded...

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