As an Atlanta trial attorney representing people seriously injured in traffic crashes, I seldom advise procrastination in filing suit as cases seldom improve with age. However, there are exceptions.
Yesterday, the Georgia Supreme Court held that the two years statute of limitation for personal injury is ("tolled") until the traffic court case against the person at fault is concluded.
That means that the two year clock doesn’t start running until the traffic charge arising from an auto accident is disposed of, one way or another, in court. I have seen cases where the traffic charges languished on court dockets for as much as four years. In those instances, the injury victim could have up to six years to file suit rather than only two.
And defendants who manage to stall resolution of their prosecutions for serious traffic offenses do so at the risk of extending the time in which they can be sued.
A Georgia statute, O.C.G.A. § 9-3-99, says the statute of limitations for any tort action a victim brings over an alleged crime is tolled from the date of the alleged crime until the prosecution of the crime becomes final or is terminated, as long as that time does not exceed six years.
The Supreme Court held that “the plain language of OCGA § 9-3-99 would encompass a violation of a Uniform Rule of the Road. To impose a more stringent definition of ‘crime’ within the context of the statute would render superfluous its language that the statute of limitation is tolled from the date of the alleged crime ‘or the act giving rise to such action in tort’ until the prosecution or other termination of such crime ‘or act.’”
Chief Justice Hunstein wrote that the court had to reach the result it did notwithstanding the significant impact the decision will have. “If the Legislature had intended to limit the application of OCGA § 9-3-99 to tort actions arising from only certain types of crimes, e.g., felonies or specific intent crimes, it certainly could have done so. It did not, and any undesirable result is a matter properly addressed by the General Assembly rather than the courts.”
I would not generally advise such delay in filing suit or taking a case to trial. If a felony traffic charge is pending against the defendant, it can be a tactical advantage for the plaintiff if the defendant repeatedly invokes the fifth amendment right against self-incrimination in front of the jury in the civil trial, and the judge then instructs the jury that they may infer that a truthful answer would not have helped the defendant.
And delay can often result in loss of evidence and witnesses’ loss of memory.
More and more, I’m inclined to file suit promptly when the injury is clearly catastrophic, and move aggressively to complete necessary investigation and discovery.
However, when people do wander in late, or where it is essential to compel answers to questions in disvoery, yesterday’s court decision allows us one more arrow in the quiver.
Following is a copy of the Georgia Supreme Court unanimous decision