After plaintiffs filed a personal injury complaint against a defendant for injuries sustained in a California car accident, the defendant demurred to the complaint on the ground that the statute of limitations had run. The lower court sustained the demurrer and entered judgment in favor of the defendant. On appeal, the plaintiffs argued that their attorney had shown an excusable error that justified relief against the statute of limitations bar. In the alternative, they requested a ruling that would toll the applicable limitations period.
An accident occurred on January 18, 2014, and the plaintiffs filed their complaint on February 16, 2016. In opposition to the defendant’s demurrer that stated that the statute of limitations had run, the plaintiffs filed an opposition on the day before the hearing. They argued that settlement negotiations had occurred, and there had been a delay in receiving medical records. Additionally, the plaintiffs’ attorney stated he had personal problems and had relied on staff personnel. While the plaintiffs argued these excuses qualified as “excusable neglect,” by law, the court sustained the demurrer for the plaintiffs’ failure to state facts sufficient to state a cause of action.
On appeal, the court stated that in the situation of a demurrer based on an affirmative defense, the court asks if the complaint makes clear the action is necessarily barred. Regarding the statute of limitations, there are policy considerations in favor of stopping tardy claims, while also disposing of claims on the merits.
According to the law, the court stated that plaintiffs may make a showing of excuse for a late filing. In this case, the plaintiffs carried the burden of demonstrating how the complaint could be amended to state a valid cause of action.
In order to obtain relief according to law, based on attorney mistake, surprise, inadvertence, or neglect, the court of appeal stated that the party must present a timely application for relief. The attorney must provide an affidavit attesting to the error. A court is, however, not required to grant relief if the court finds that the dismissal or default was not caused by attorney mistake, surprise, negligence, or inadvertence.
The court stated that the plaintiffs could not show that they were entitled to relief or that they satisfied the criteria of the statute. According to caselaw, attorney error or misjudgment does not meet the requirements set forth in the statute. The court made clear that the plaintiffs had not identified a viable means of filing the action in a timely manner.
Next, the court assessed whether the plaintiffs were entitled to relief based on equitable estoppel or a tolling of the filing deadline. Here, the plaintiffs argued that since settlement negotiations were ongoing, and since the defendant’s insurer had accepted liability, more records were needed. The rule is that defendants may be estopped from setting forth a statute of limitations defense if the plaintiff can show there had been a reasonable reliance on the defendant’s misrepresentations.
Here, the court stated there was no evidence the defendant misled them or prevented them from taking timely action. Instead, the plaintiffs contended that their attorney made mistakes. It had not been an error for the trial court to sustain the demurrer.
Finally, regarding the plaintiff’s argument that the court should provide equitable relief, the court stated that there was nothing in the record that showed the defendants had deprived them of the opportunity to pursue their case. The court affirmed the judgment of dismissal in favor of the defendants.
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More Blog Posts:
California Appellate Court Holds Paramedic Failed to Exercise Care When Driving Rather Than When Rendering Professional Services, So Two-Year Statute of Limitations Applies and Plaintiff’s Claim not Time-Barred, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, August 15, 2016
How Much Time Do I have to File a Lawsuit For My Injuries?, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, August 27, 2014