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Town of Delafield v. Central Transport Kriewaldt

Court of Appeals of Wisconsin, District II

June 5, 2019

Town of Delafield, Plaintiff-Appellant,
Central Transport Kriewaldt, Defendant-Respondent.

          APPEAL from a judgment of the circuit court for Waukesha County No. 2017CV859: MICHAEL J. APRAHAMIAN, Judge.

          Before Neubauer, C.J., Reilly, P.J., and Gundrum, J.

          GUNDRUM, J.

         ¶1 Town of Delafield appeals from the circuit court's dismissal of a citation issued to Central Transport Kriewaldt for operating a semi-truck on a Town road in excess of the Town's posted, seasonal weight restriction. Although the circuit court acknowledged there was no dispute the truck exceeded the weight limit, the court dismissed the citation on the basis that the restriction was preempted by federal law. We reverse and remand.


         ¶2 On Friday, March 4, 2016, the Town posted road signs identifying its seasonal weight restriction prohibiting vehicles over six tons from driving on designated roads. Three days later, a Central Transport driver delivering art supplies to a Town resident drove a semi-truck in excess of six tons on one of the designated roads. The truck got stuck in a ditch, blocking traffic, and was eventually towed out by the Town's highway department. A sheriff's deputy issued Central Transport a citation for operating a vehicle on the road in excess of the posted weight limit, in violation of Town of Delafield, Wis., Ordinance § 7.01 (2010), adopting Wis.Stat. § 348.17(1) (2017-18).[1]

         ¶3 Following a court trial, the circuit court granted Central Transport's motion to dismiss the citation on the basis that the seasonal weight restriction did not allow Central Transport reasonable access to its Town customer and thus was preempted by federal law, specifically 49 U.S.C. § 31114(a) (2018) of the Surface Transportation Assistance Act (STAA). The Town appeals.


         ¶4 The circuit court granted Central Transport's motion to dismiss the citation in light of the facts the court found following the trial. When facts are derived from a trial to the court, we will not disturb the court's findings unless they are clearly erroneous. See Wis. Stat. § 805.17(2). Whether federal preemption applies, however, is a question of federal law we review de novo. Partenfelder v. Rohde, 2014 WI 80, ¶25, 356 Wis.2d 492, 850 N.W.2d 896. Preemption occurs in three instances: (1) "when Congress expressly sets forth a law's preemptive effect," (2) "when there is a reasonable inference that the subject matter of the law in question is in a field in which Congress intended federal law to have exclusive application," and (3) "when state law conflicts with federal law." Id., ¶26. Here, the parties focus on the third instance-whether Wis.Stat. § 348.17(1) and Town of Delafield, Wis., Ordinance § 7.01, as applied, conflict with federal law-so we will as well. The interpretation and application of federal law to a set of facts is a question of law we review independently. City of Weyauwega v. Wisconsin Cent., Ltd., 2018 WI.App. 65, ¶¶10-11, 384 Wis.2d 382, 919 N.W.2d 609.

         ¶5 Central Transport does not dispute that it violated the Town ordinance, which adopted Wis.Stat. § 348.17(1). Section 348.17(1) provides:

No person … shall operate a vehicle in violation of special weight limitations imposed by state or local authorities on particular highways, highway structures or portions of highways when signs have been erected as required by [Wis. Stat. §] 349.16(2) giving notice of such weight limitations, except when the vehicle is being operated under a permit expressly authorizing such weight limitations to be exceeded ….

         Central Transport states that "[o]n its face" § 348.17(1) "does not contradict" the STAA, specifically 49 U.S.C. § 31114(a), or the related Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) regulation 23 C.F.R. § 658.19 (2018). It asserts, however, that a conflict arose in this case because the federal provisions "protect Central Transport's reasonable access to a terminal/delivery address," but the Town's application of § 348.17(1) through its weight restriction "denied Central Transport all access from the interstate to its terminal."[2] (Emphasis added.) The record indicates otherwise.

         ¶6 Section 31114(a) of Title 49 of the United States Code provides: "Prohibition on denying access. A State may not enact or enforce a law denying to a commercial motor vehicle subject to this subchapter or subchapter 1 of this chapter reasonable access" between the Interstate and a terminal. (Emphasis added.) Similarly, § 658.19 of Title 23 of the Code of Federal Regulations provides in relevant part: "No State may enact or enforce any law denying reasonable access to vehicles with dimensions authorized by the STAA between the [Interstate] and terminals." (Emphasis added.) Congress did not define "reasonable access." As one court has observed, "[d]espite their awareness that the resulting 'nonuniformity of access has become a considerable burden for trucking companies,' Congress did nothing to change the reasonable access provisions of the law to provide for a uniform, national definition of reasonable access." Consolidated Freightways Corp. v. Larson, 647 F.Supp. 1479, 1483-84 (M.D. Pa. 1986) (citation omitted). We reverse and remand because we conclude that the manner in which the Town applied Wis.Stat. § 348.17(1) and Town ordinance § 7.01 afforded Central Transport "reasonable access" and thus is not preempted by the STAA or the FHWA regulation.

         ¶7 At the trial on Central Transport's citation, the Town's highway superintendent testified that the six-ton weight limit is only in place on certain Town roads "for a short amount of time" during the "spring thaw," in order to limit heavy vehicles on the roads when the roads are "very vulnerable" to damage from the weight "because all the ground is not thawed so the roads are soft." The superintendent personally determines when the weight restriction should be posted and later removed, which determinations are based upon his direct examination of the roads, including "movement" he observes and "frost coming out of the grounds and cracks." Once the roads are settled, he "pull[s] the weight limits." He testified that he utilized this process in March 2016, the time relevant to ...

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