Plaintiff’s argument that defendant was equitably estopped from asserting a statute of limitations defense based on vague statements by defendant’s insurance carrier adjuster that a limitations defense would not be raised and that there was no rush in providing releases was rejected.
In Barrett v. Garton, No. M2022-01064-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 6, 2023), plaintiff was injured in a car accident with defendant. Plaintiff filed suit within the one-year statute of limitations, but she failed to have service issued at the time of the filing or within one year thereafter. Defendant accordingly moved for summary judgment based on the statute of limitations, which the trial court granted after rejecting plaintiff’s argument that defendant should be equitably estopped from asserting a statute of limitations defense. This ruling was affirmed on appeal.
Tenn. R. Civ. P. 3 states that filing a complaint commences an action, “but if no process is issued upon the filing of the complaint, the plaintiff must issue process within one year from the filing of the complaint to rely on the filing of the complaint to toll the statute of limitations.” It was undisputed that plaintiff had failed to have process issued within a year of filing her complaint, but she argued that defendant should be equitably estopped from asserting a timeliness defense based on statements made by defendant’s insurance carrier.
To support her argument, plaintiff pointed to a statement by defendant’s insurance carrier adjuster that a statute of limitations defense would not be raised, as well as a statement that there was no rush on the matter of plaintiff providing medical releases. The Court held that this was not enough to prove equitable estoppel.
The Court explained that “courts have been cautioned to invoke the doctrine [of equitable estoppel] sparingly” when used to argue against a statute of limitations defense, and that “the plaintiff must identify specific promises, inducements, representations, or assurances by the defendant that reasonably induced the plaintiff to delay filing suit.” (internal citation omitted). Here, plaintiff failed to include “any details whatsoever regarding this supposed agreement between [defendant] and the insurance adjuster,” and instead only pointed to general statements of the adjuster. The Court ruled that this was not enough to support an equitable estoppel argument, stating that “it was unreasonable for [plaintiff] and her attorney to rely upon the insurance adjuster’s patience in receiving medical records as a waiver to the requirement that she issue process and serve [defendant].”
Summary judgment for defendant was thus affirmed.
This opinion was published five months after the case was assigned on briefs.