In its recent decision in Beneke v. Parker, 285 Ga. 733, 684 SE 2d 243 (2009), the Georgia Supreme Court re-defined the method for calculating the expiration of the statute of limitations in some personal injury cases.
In its recent decision in Beneke v. Parker, 285 Ga. 733, 684 SE 2d 243 (2009), the Georgia Supreme Court re-defined the method for calculating the expiration of the statute of limitations in some personal injury cases. In Beneke, the Court held that in personal injury cases where a driver has received a traffic citation, the cause of action does not accrue until the prosecution of the citation has become final, or is otherwise terminated. Prior to the Beneke opinion, as a general rule, the cause of action for a personal injury claim accrued on the date of the incident. O.C.G.A § 9-3-3. Therefore, the statute of limitations clock began to run on that date.
In Beneke, the Plaintiff alleged injuries from an April 27, 2005 motor vehicle accident. In that accident, the Defendant was cited for following too closely in violation of O.C.G.A § 40-6-49. Plaintiff filed her personal injury suit on May 11, 2007, more than two years after the date of the accident. Defendant moved for summary judgment on the grounds that the statute of limitations had expired. The trial court initially granted the motion, but upon review of Plaintiff’s Motion for Reconsideration, Defendant’s motion was denied.
In her Motion for Reconsideration, Plaintiff argued that the statute of limitations had not expired on April 27, 2007. Rather, the statute was tolled by the application of O.C.G.A. § 9-3-99, which provides:
The running of the period of limitations with respect to any cause of action in tort that may be brought by the victim of an alleged crime which arises out of the facts and circumstances relating to the commission of such alleged crime committed in this state shall be tolled from the date of the commission of the alleged crime or the act giving rise to such action in tort until prosecution of such crime or act has become final or otherwise terminated, provided that such time does not exceed six years.
The trial court’s decision was appealed to the Georgia Court of Appeals, which reversed the trial court on the grounds that O.C.G.A. § 9-3-99 was inapplicable to the circumstances of this case.
In its ruling, the Court of Appeals reasoned that most violations of traffic laws, also collectively referred to as the “Uniform Rules of the Road”, usually do not meet the definition of “crime” under Georgia law. The Court pointed out that Georgia law defines a “crime” as “a violation of a statute of this state in which there is a joint operation of an act, or omission to act, and intention or criminal negligence”. O.C.G.A § 16-2-1(a). Criminal negligence is defined as “ an act, or failure to act, which demonstrates a willful, wanton, or reckless disregard for the safety of others who might reasonably be expected to be injured thereby”. O.C.G.A § 16-2-1(b).
The Court of Appeals interpreted O.C.G.A § 16-2-1 to require intent or criminal negligence in the underlying offense in order for the offense to be considered a “crime” for purposes of O.C.G.A. § 9-3-99. It further noted that violations of the Uniform Rules of the Road are generally strict liability offenses which do not require a showing of intent or criminal negligence to support a conviction. Therefore, in most circumstances, violations of the Uniform Rules of the Road would not meet the definition of “crime” such as to allow the application of the tolling provisions of O.C.G.A. § 9-3-99.
The Court of Appeals decision was appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court. In reversing the Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court disputed the Court of Appeals position that no offense, other than those that require intent or criminal negligence, qualify as “crimes” for application of the tolling provisions of O.C.G.A. § 9-3-99. The Court noted that violations of the Uniform Rules of the Road, such as following too closely, are defined by statute as misdemeanors. O.C.G.A. § 40-6-1(a). Further, a misdemeanor is defined as “any crime other than a felony”. O.C.G.A. § 16-1-3(9). The Court opined that the plain language of O.C.G.A. § 9-3-99 makes it clear that the statute applies to any “crime”. Therefore, the statute encompasses violations of the Uniform Rules of the Road. As such, the statute of limitations in Beneke was tolled until prosecution of Defendant’s following too closely was finalized or otherwise terminated.
In its ruling, the Supreme Court pointed out that had the Legislature intended the tolling provisions of O.C.G.A. § 9-3-99 to be limited to certain offenses, it could have included a list of relevant offenses in the wording of the statute. As no offenses were specifically included, or excluded, the Court held that the statute applies to all “crimes” including misdemeanor violations of the Uniform Rules of the Road.
As a result of the Court’s ruling, it appears that the tolling provisions of O.C.G.A. § 9-3-99 will apply in most circumstance where a traffic citation is issued. Therefore, insurers and their defense counsel will need to calculate the expiration of the statute of limitations from the date that the prosecution of the citation is finalized or otherwise terminated, as this marks the date when the cause of action accrues. This is generally not an extended amount of time as most traffic citations are usually resolved within a few months after the date of the accident. However, there are likely some circumstance, such as appeal of a guilty verdict, which could extend this time period considerably. Nonetheless, per the language of the statute, the tolled period cannot exceed six years.
The Court conceded in its opinion that its decision would likely have an affect on a large number of personal injury cases; however, it concluded that there was no alternative given the plain language of the statute. While appeals from the Beneke ruling are likely, unless the Supreme Court has a drastic change of heart on the issue, it appears that defendants, and their insurers, are stuck with the new rules unless and until the Legislature modifies the wording of O.C.G.A. § 9-3-99.