August 2016 > Addressing a Common Evidentiary Issue in Wisconsin Small Claims Collection Actions: Vernon Memorial

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Addressing a Common Evidentiary Issue in Wisconsin Small Claims Collection Actions: Vernon Memorial Hospital v. Weigel

By: Maria N. Lewis, Compliance Attorney

The Wisconsin Court of Appeals recently decided a small claims case on appeal that raised evidentiary issues under the Wisconsin Statutes. In Vernon Memorial Hospital v. Kristine M. Weigel, No. 2015AP2218, (Wis. App. Ct. July 14, 2016), the Court addressed a small claims collection action initiated by the hospital in LaCrosse County Circuit Court for unpaid medical services provided to Weigel, the consumer, in 2010. The case is unpublished, but addresses a common legal principle in Wisconsin small claims actions: admissibility of all evidence having reasonable probative value. 

The case as a whole addresses arguments made by the consumer that 1) the Vernon County Circuit Court’s findings were not supported by sufficient evidence; 2) the La Crosse County Circuit Court erred in transferring the case to Vernon County without first determining whether the hospital’s claim for unpaid medical bills arose from a transaction covered by the Wisconsin Consumer Act;[1] 3) and the La Crosse County Circuit Court’s order transferring the case constituted a miscarriage of justice. For purposes of this article, the sufficiency of evidence issue will be discussed. 

The Wisconsin Statutes are very clear that a court shall conduct small claims proceedings informally and allow each party the opportunity to present arguments and evidence, and to examine witnesses “to the extent reasonably required for full and true disclosure of the facts.” Wis. Stat. §799.209(1). Additionally, as this case points out, Wisconsin’s rules of evidence do not apply to small claims actions that are tried to the court.[2] Vernon Memorial Hospital, 2015AP2218 at ¶13. Despite this clear procedure in small claims, many consumer attorneys will argue a lack of sufficient evidence when defending against a collection action, particularly those brought by debt buyers. Consumer attorneys will argue that employees of the debt buyer do not have sufficient personal knowledge to testify about the debt purchased from the original creditor or a previous owner of the debt. However, a small claims court “shall admit all evidence having reasonable probative value.” Id. The only other limitation to the reasonable probative value standard of admissible evidence is that “an essential finding of fact may not be based solely on a declarant’s oral hearsay statement unless it would be admissible under the rules of evidence.” Id.; Wis. Stat. §799.209(2). 

In Vernon Memorial Hospital, the hospital’s witness, a manager of patient accounts, testified as to an itemized statement of services received by the consumer, as well as a consent form signed by the consumer prior to receiving the medical services at issue. The consumer made no objections as to the witness’s testimony at trial and did not question the witness. The trial court then granted judgment in favor of the hospital. Instead of making any objections or arguments at trial, the consumer argued in part on appeal that the witness’s testimony was inadmissible hearsay and that the manager did not have personal knowledge as to the consumer’s signature on the consent form. The Court of Appeals rejected these arguments, citing to §799.209(2) and stating that the consumer failed to develop an argument as to why the witness’s knowledge about the consumer’s signature, among other facts, even mattered to the outcome of the trial. Ultimately, the Court of Appeals ruled that the consumer failed to show that Vernon County Circuit Court’s judgment was not supported by sufficient evidence.

Although unpublished, this case contains a good example of the sufficiency of evidence and hearsay arguments that many consumer attorneys raise in small claims collection actions. Despite the attempts of consumer attorneys to argue otherwise, all evidence having reasonable probative value is admissible in small claims.

[1] The case was initiated in La Crosse County, but later transferred to Vernon County once it was determined that the consumer now lived in Vernon County.

[2] The only rules of evidence that do apply in small claims are those relating to privileges and the admissibility of certain test results, neither of which is common in small claims collection actions, or at issue in this case. See Wis. Stat. §799.209(2). 

Posted: 8/12/2016 2:29:13 PM by Tom Connor | with 0 comments

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