Last year we blogged about a pending Wisconsin Supreme Court case involving a rare car stolen from a Milwaukee factory. The case was recently decided, and the ruling is going to have a big impact on other replevin actions filed in Wisconsin.
As we explained in our previous blog post, replevin is a legal action. It is brought by a plaintiff who believes the defendant has wrongfully taken or failed to return a piece of personal property — which means any sort of thing except land. The plaintiff wants the property back, and may also want paid damages for the hassle of getting their property back.
At Hanson & Payne, we are often involved in cases where a replevin action is filed. We work to get the disputed property into the rightful owner’s hands. We have represented both debtors and creditors in replevin cases.
The Talbot Lago
It is rare that a replevin case goes all the way up to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, the highest court in the state, so we have been closely following the case Mueller v. TL90108 LLC. It does not hurt that the case sounds like a cross between a Bond movie and a John Grisham novel.
In 2001, thieves broke into the old Monarch Plastic Products factory on Milwaukee’s lower east side and stole a disassembled French sports car that its elderly owner had been trying to restore since 1967. The car, a 1938 Talbot Lago T150 C teardrop coupe, was worth an estimated $7 million.
Not only was the car stolen, so were all the documents and spare parts related to it. Other valuable items in the factory-turned-garage were not touched. There was no sign of forced entry, but in a sinister turn of events, the phone lines to the owner’s house were cut the same day the car was stolen.
In 2005, the car’s owner passed away. He left his entire estate, including the rights to the stolen car, to his cousin, Richard “Skip” Mueller. A few years later, Mueller sold a majority share of the right to own the car to Joseph L. Ford III, who has experience tracking down rare stolen cars.
Then things went quiet, and it seemed like the car was gone forever. But in 2016, the authorities alerted Mueller and Ford that someone was trying to title a now completely restored Talbot with the same chassis number in Illinois!
Mueller and Ford demanded the return of the stolen car, but the man who had purchased it, Rick Workman, refused. Workman claims he had no idea the car was stolen. He purchased it in good faith from a European dealer.
In February 2017, Mueller and Ford filed a replevin action against the company Workman used to purchase the car, TL90108, LLC.
It’s a case that fits the definition of replevin to a T. Mueller and Ford, the plaintiffs, are the rightful owners of a piece of personal property, the Talbot Lago. They are suing the defendant, TL90108, LLC, for the return of the vehicle.
Lower courts couldn’t agree on what should happen to the car. Wisconsin’s replevin statute gives plaintiffs a six-year window to file a case, and the various parties had different ideas about when that six-year countdown should begin. The Wisconsin Supreme Court agreed to take the case and clarify when the clock starts ticking in replevin cases.
What The Court Said
The Court ruled that the six-year clock started ticking when Workman purchased the Talbot Lago through TL90108, LLC in 2015.
According to the ruling, the trigger is the beginning of the wrongful detention by a defendant, not the original theft, not the plaintiff’s discovery of the defendant’s possession of the item, and not the timing of the plaintiff’s demand of the item’s return.
What This Means
This case is going to be important because it opens the door for people like Mueller and Ford, who lost track of the property that was taken from them for a number of years, to bring a replevin action once the property is rediscovered.
For creditors, or anyone that handles the sale of second-hand goods or repossessed goods, this case underscores the importance of ensuring the property you are claiming is rightfully yours. You open the clients you transfer repossessed or second-hand property to up to liability if the item you are transferring does not have a clear title.
Our firm will continue to be involved in replevin cases, representing both debtors and creditors. We doubt we will ever see a case as wild as this one, but we do expect to cite this case going forward. If you think you have the makings of a replevin case on your hands, don’t hesitate to contact our office.