The “Unsound Mind” Exception to the Statute of Limitations

Tenn. Code Ann. § 28-3-104(a)(1) (2000) provides a one year statute of limitations in personal injury cases (the shortest such statute in the nation).  However, Tenn. Code Ann. § 28-1-106 (2000) creates two  exceptions to the rule; it provides as follows:

"[i]f the person entitled to commence an action is, at the time the cause of action  accrued, either under the age of eighteen (18) years, or of unsound mind, such person, or such person’s representatives and privies, as the case may be, may commence the action, after the removal of such disability, within the time of limitation for the particular cause of action, unless it exceeds three (3) years, and in that case within three (3) years from the removal of such disability."

But what happens when the person of "unsound mind" has a person appointed by the court to look out for him (a conservator)?  The Tennessee Supreme Court looked at that issue in an opinion released yesterday.  Here are the precise questions posed to the Tennessee Supreme Court from the United States District Court for the Western District of Tennessee.

"1. Whether Tennessee’s “discovery rule” exception to the accrual of a cause of action refers to the knowledge and diligence of the injured person or to the knowledge and diligence of a legal representative who has accepted responsibility for the injured person’s tort claims arising out of a single incident?

2. Whether, under Tennessee Code Annotated section 28-1-106, the disability of “unsound mind” is “removed” when the injured person’s legal representative accepts responsibility for the injured person’s tort claims arising out of a single incident?"

Justice Clark wrote the opinion for the Court.  Looking first to the second question posed by the federal court, the Supreme Court held  "the cause of action remains personal to the plaintiff  insofar as the running of the statute of limitations is concerned. That is, the statute of limitations either runs or is tolled depending upon the status of the plaintiff, irrespective of whether a legal guardian exists. If the plaintiff is under some form of legally recognized disability which tolls the statute of limitations, the statute of limitations remains tolled despite the possibility that some representative could bring the action on the plaintiff’s behalf."

The Court went on to say that "[t]he disability of unsound mind is removed when the individual is no longer of unsound mind, due either to a change in the individual’s condition or the individual’s death. The statute contains no language which would lead us to conclude that the legislature intended for removal of either of these two disabilities upon appointment of a guardian. Had the General Assembly intended to include such a provision, it could have done so."

The Court then turned to the first question and held that the discovery rule "does not …overcome the operation of the tolling provision of our legal disability statute. Thus, so long as the applicable statute of limitations is tolled due to a plaintiff’s disability, either minority or unsound mind, the ‘discovery rule’ is inapposite." 

The case is Abels v. Genie Industries. Inc.,  No. M2005-02597-SC-R23-CQ (Sept. 14, 2006).  Read it here