Fankhauser v. Hestad (Damages Award)

In Fankhauser v. Hestad (2019AP110), the Court of Appeals District III upheld a $500,000 damages award against a garbage collector who was driving on a customer’s bridge when it collapsed.

Curtis Hestad, an employee of Allied Waste Services, drove an Allied vehicle onto the Fankhausers’ property. The Fankhausers had instructed Allied to use the west entrance to their property when collecting their garbage, instead of the east entrance. Access from the east entrance required crossing a bridge on the Fankhausers’ property. When Hestad drove to pick up the Fankhausers’ trash for the first time, his GPS took him to the east entrance, and he crossed the bridge. The bridge collapsed under the weight of Hestad’s truck.

The Fankhausers sued Hestad and Allied for negligence, and a jury awarded them $500,000 in damages. Hestad and Allied filed counterclaims for negligence and violation of the safe place statute, but the circuit court dismissed the counterclaims. Hestad and Allied appealed both the jury award and the dismissal of their counterclaims.

The appeals court upheld the dismissal of Hestad and Allied’s counterclaims, finding that Hestad was a trespasser on the Fankhausers’ property when the bridge collapsed. Wisconsin case law has established that landowners are not liable to trespassers, nor does the safe place statute protect trespassers. The court found Hestad to be a trespasser because the Fankhausers had specifically instructed Allied – and Allied had instructed Hestad – to use the west entrance to their property. Since Hestad did not have permission to enter via the east entrance, the court considered him a trespasser and dismissed the negligence and safe place statute claims.

The appeals court also upheld the jury award of $500,000 to the Fankhausers. The appeals court found:

  • The circuit court property denied the defendants’ motion for a directed verdict because there was sufficient evidence for the jury to determine the precollapse value of the bridge.
  • The $500,000 award was not excessive because there was credible evidence to support the award (i.e. replacement cost, lost property value without a replacement, the Fankhausers’ loss of privacy and loss of recreational and access uses of the bridge).
  • The circuit court properly denied cross-examination questions the defendants asked the Fankhausers about their maintenance of the bridge. The court determined that such questions would have confused the jury, since the Fankhausers’ negligence in bridge maintenance was not at issue.
  • The Fankhausers’ expert on replacement cost used reliable principles and methods.
  • The circuit court did not need to include separate questions on the special verdict for different categories of damages.

For these reasons, the appeals court affirmed the circuit court’s dismissal of Hestad and Allied’s counterclaims and upheld the jury award of $500,000 to the Fankhausers.