Ordinarily and subject to several important exceptions, the statute of limitations in Tennessee personal injury cases is one year. One exception to that rule is Tenn. Code Ann. § 28-3-104(a(2), which addresses situations where the civil defendant faced criminal charges as a result of a incident giving rise to the cause of action. However, a new decision declares that where a defendant in a car accident case received a traffic citation for violation of a city code ordinance, the statute of limitations for filing a claim related to that accident was not extended under Tenn. Code Ann. § 28-3-104(a)(2).
In Glover v. Duckhorn, No. W2022-00697-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. May 2, 2023), plaintiff and defendant were involved in a car accident, and defendant received a traffic citation for violation of a city code ordinance for failure to maintain a safe lookout. No other citation was issued. One year and one day after the accident, plaintiff filed this personal injury action, and defendant filed a motion to dismiss based on the one-year statute of limitations. Plaintiff asserted that the limitations period was extended to two years under Tenn. Code Ann. § 28-3-104(a)(2), but the trial court granted dismissal, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.
Personal injury suits are subject to a one-year statute of limitations under Tenn. Code Ann. § 28-3-104, but subsection (a)(2) extends the limitations period to two years under certain circumstances:
(2) A cause of action listed in subdivision (a)(1) shall be commenced within two (2) years after the cause of action accrued, if:
(A) Criminal charges are brought against any person alleged to have caused or contributed to the injury;
(B) The conduct, transaction or occurrence that gives rise to the cause of action for civil damages is the subject of a criminal prosecution commenced within one (1) year by:
(i) A law enforcement officer;
(ii) A district attorney general; or
(iii) A grand jury; and
(C) The cause of action is brought by the person injured by the criminal conduct against the party prosecuted for such conduct.
Section 28-3-104(a)(3) provides that (a)(2) is to be “strictly construed.” Whether plaintiff’s claim was time-barred hinged on whether defendant receiving a citation for violating a municipal ordinance constituted “criminal charges” under the statute, and both the trial court and Court of Appeals ruled that it did not. The Court explained that “Tennessee courts have consistently held that municipal ordinance violations are civil matters and that violations of state statutes are criminal matters.” (internal citations omitted). The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals has stated:
Violations of state statutes are criminal…On the other hand, violations of municipal ordinances, which do not involve the potential for incarceration, are considered civil for the purposes of procedure and appeal. …Though municipal ordinances may mirror, duplicate, or cross-reference state criminal or traffic statutes, the two are not interchangeable.
(internal citations omitted).
Applying that reasoning to the present matter, the Court ruled that the statute of limitations was not extended to two-years and the claim was time-barred. The Court stated:
[Defendant] was cited for a municipal ordinance violation that merely carried a civil fine. Criminal charges were never brought against [defendant], and [defendant] was not the subject of a criminal prosecution for failing to maintain a proper lookout. Thus,…Tennessee Code Annotated § 28-3-104(a)(2) is not implicated.
Dismissal was therefore affirmed.
This case clarifies that a municipal ordinance citation will not extend the statute of limitations for a personal injury action after a traffic accident. This opinion was released one month after the case was assigned on briefs.
Note: Chapter 81, Section 25 of Day on Torts: Leading Cases in Tennessee Tort Law has been updated to include this decision.
Day on Torts: Leading Cases in Tennessee Tort Law contains summaries of leading cases on over 500 topics and citations to more than 2500 additional cases. The 550,000+ word book (and three others, Tennessee Law of Civil Trial, Tennessee Wrongful Death Law, Compendium of Tennessee Tort Reform Cases) is available by subscription at www.birddoglaw.com and is continually updated as new decisions and statutes impact Tennessee law. Click on the link to see the book’s Table of Contents.
BirdDog Law also provides Tennessee lawyers with free access to user-friendly versions of the Tennessee rules of evidence and procedure and lots of other free resources, including a database for each of Tennessee’s 95 counties that will help find out information about court clerks, judges, filing fees, local rules, local forms, the presence (or absence) of electronic filing, case filings, and tort trial statistics.