78 years ago in Wisconsin Law. Husbands CAN be bad drivers, and their wives can sue them for it!

This post contains legal information but is not intended to be legal advice.  If you have a legal question, contact a lawyer.

January has been pretty cold lately up here by Lake Superior.  It’s a good thing February and Valentines Day are coming soon to warm us up.  Maybe you are preparing to celebrate with a loved one- candy, chocolates, presents, romantic dinners.  Yes, love is definitely in the air…

Seventy-eight years ago this month, the Wisconsin Supreme Court issued an opinion about marital bliss in the case of Forbes v. Forbes, 226 Wis. 477, 277 N.W. 112 (Wis., 1938).  The suit originated in Douglas County and involved a woman who was injured as a passenger in a single car accident.  The driver of the car was cruising down a highway at a comfortable 40-45 miles per hour, heading up a hill, and a car was coming at him in the opposite direction.  Apparently the Driver was daydreaming because he didn’t see the oncoming car until it was nearly at his front bumper, at the top of the hill.  The Driver became startled, jolted, and jerked the steering wheel to avoid the oncoming car that wasn’t even in his lane.  The Driver’s car careened back and forth down the other side of the 200-300 foot hill and ended up in a ditch.  Marie was injured (the case opinion does not detail her injuries) so she sued the driver, her husband, Walter.  The case went to a jury trial and the jury found in favor of Marie.  They determined her husband was a bad, negligent, irresponsible driver with regard to speed, lookout and control, “and by his failure to exercise his best skill and judgment in the manner in which he managed and controlled his automobile.”  The jury also determined that Marie was negligent but that her negligence did not contribute to her injuries…

“The jury did find that she failed to exercise ordinary
care for her own safety at the time of and
immediately preceding the accident, and that
she ought to have foreseen that injury might
probably follow from such failure. However,
the only basis for finding that she was
negligent was the fact that she had fallen
asleep. But, the jury also found that her
negligence was not a cause of her injury.”

Walter appealed.  He argued that the jury simply got it wrong – he wasn’t negligent and his wife was.  In a not surprising move, the Supreme Court upheld the jury’s determinations that Walter was the cause of Marie’s injuries.  Walter’s other argument on appeal addressed the fact that he and Marie were married and lived in Illinois…

“The defendant further contends that
although the accident occurred in Wisconsin,
the plaintiff cannot recover the damages
sustained by her as the result of defendant’s
negligence because the parties are husband
and wife, whose domicile at the time of the
accident, as well as the trial, was in the State
of Illinois, under the laws of which a wife has
no cause of action against her husband to
recover damages so sustained in that state.”

The Supreme Court also rejected Walter’s argument that Marie’s suit threatened the integrity of their Illinois marriage.  It held,

“So, in the case at bar, the parties by
reason of their marital status under the laws
of Illinois continued as husband and wife
while in Wisconsin, but while they were here
their personal duties, obligations, and
liabilities incidental to that status were such
as existed or arose under our laws in relation
to the legality, effect, and consequences of
their transactions within this state. Therefore
our rule that a wife can maintain an action for
injuries sustained by her as the result of her
husband’s negligence in this state, governs in
this action.”

So as of 1938, a wife had the right to sue her husband if he was negligent in Wisconsin, regardless of where they lived.  This case’s decision regarding the application of Illinois marital rules was overturned in 1959.  Current status is that Wisconsin wives may sue their husbands, but out-of-state wives are subject to the rules of their home states.

The good news is that falling asleep while your husband is driving, even seventy-eight years later, does not make you responsible for your injuries if he crashes the car.

Johanna R Kirk – Kirk Law Office, Superior, WI