A passenger injured in a car accident sued the county government and its insurers for damages. A statute limited the amount of damages that a government tortfeasor must pay, but not the amount a private tortfeasor would pay for the same accident. Abrahamson held that the legislature had a rational basis for limiting the damages a government tortfeasor must pay: it preserves public funds to ensure that the government can serve the citizenry. However, she further held that if the government tortfeasor has insurance coverage exceeding the statutory limit, the injured party may be compensated from that excess coverage.
A Wisconsin statute provided that in a personal injury action a plaintiff may recover punitive damages from a tortfeasor who showed “an intentional disregard of the rights of the plaintiff.” Writing for the majority, Abrahamson held that this statute requires the plaintiff to prove that the tortfeasor was aware that its conduct was substantially certain to result in a disregard of the plaintiff’s rights, not that the tortfeasor intended to cause the harm that the plaintiff suffered.
A soccer player sued an opposing team’s players for leg injuries suffered during an organized game. In most states, participants in contact sports could recover damages for injuries only if they were inflicted intentionally or through reckless misconduct. Writing for a majority, Abrahamson held that the injured player need only prove negligence—that the player who caused the injury failed to use that degree of care which would be exercised by a reasonable person under the circumstances. Applied to recreational sports, this standard requires consideration of matters such as the sport’s risks, rules, customs, and level of physical contact.
State ex rel. Universal Processing Services of Wisconsin, LLC v. Circuit Court for Milwaukee County, 2017 WI 26, 374 Wis. 2d 26, 892 N. W.2d 267
This case concerned whether a circuit court impermissibly delegated its power to a referee to decide litigation on the merits. Writing for the majority, Abrahamson noted that the Wisconsin Constitution vests the “judicial power” of the state in the courts. She surveyed the history of referees (also called “special masters”) from the time Wisconsin was a territory through modern federal practice. She held that while referees are a valuable adjunct to the judicial process, they may not assume the place of a judge.
People who cannot afford lawyers often try to represent themselves in court. Their pleadings are difficult to decipher and do not follow the law. In ordinary civil cases, courts look at the allegations of the pleading, not the label, and liberally construe it to determine whether it states a claim for relief. In this case, Abrahamson held that the same rule applies to prisoners who file court pleadings without the assistance of a lawyer.
Wisconsin’s campaign finance law prohibits candidates for elective office from coordinating spending by outside groups on “issue advocacy.” “Issue ads” do not expressly ask the public to vote for or against a candidate, but they often attack a candidate’s opponent. In this case, the majority held Wisconsin’s law unconstitutional because the First Amendment and the Wisconsin Constitution only permit states to regulate “express advocacy.” Abrahamson dissented, arguing that by adopting a faulty interpretation of the Wisconsin law and the First Amendment, the majority subjected the democratic process to potential corrupting influences. Two years later, the United States Supreme Court summarily affirmed a lower court decision holding that under the First Amendment states may indeed regulate issue advocacy. Independence Institute v. Federal Election Commission, 216 F. Supp.3d 176 (2016), aff’d 137 S. Ct. 1204 (2017).
League of Women Voters of Wisconsin Education Network v. Walker, 2014 WI 97, 357 Wis. 2d 360, 851 N.W.2d 302
In general, Wisconsin may require voters to verify their identity before casting a ballot. But Act 23 imposed a new restriction: people who meet the constitutional requirements to vote may be stripped of that right if they fail to produce a specific type of government-issued ID. The majority held Act 23 constitutional. Abrahamson dissented, arguing that Act 23 is unconstitutional. She said the majority was following “not James Madison—for whom Wisconsin’s capital city is named—but rather Jim Crow—the name typically used to refer to repressive laws used to restrict rights, including the right to vote, of African-Americans.”
An insured person injured in a car accident settled with the tortfeasor and then sued his insurer for underinsured motorist benefits. The insurer claimed that the lack of notice precluded it from seeking subrogation from the tortfeasor. Writing for a unanimous court, Abrahamson brought Wisconsin law in line with that of other states. She held that an insured’s failure to give notice to his insurer that he entered a settlement with the tortfeasor creates a rebuttable presumption that the insurer was prejudiced by the lack of notice. The insured must prove that the insurer was not prejudiced.
A husband and wife jointly owned their home and were both named insureds on a fire insurance policy. When the wife sued for divorce and the circuit court ordered the husband to vacate their home, he burned it down. The insurance company refused to pay because the husband, one of the insureds, had cause the property damage. Writing for a unanimous court, Abrahamson overruled case law favoring the insurance company and held that an innocent insured under a fire insurance policy is not barred from recovering under the policy merely because another insured intentionally damaged the insured property.
In 2011, the Wisconsin legislature adopted the federal “Daubert standard” that circuit courts must apply when deciding whether to admit an expert’s opinion into evidence. In this case, the Court’s first opportunity to interpret the standard, the justices issued 4 separate opinions. Abrahamson’s opinion established the history, purpose, and methodology of the Daubert standard. She held that an expert physician’s testimony about the standard of care for a family-practice doctor doing obstetrics satisfied Daubert though it was based solely on his own experience. Only the dissenting opinion disagreed with her analysis.