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Statute of limitations extended to two years where defendant was given traffic citation after car accident.

Where plaintiff’s personal injury claim was based on a Tennessee car accident for which defendant was given a traffic citation for failure to exercise due care under Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-8-136, which is a Class C misdemeanor, the statute of limitations for plaintiff’s action was extended to two years pursuant to Tenn. Code Ann. § 28-3-104(a)(2).

In Younger v. Okbahhanes, No. E2020-00429-COA-R10-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 28, 2021), plaintiff was injured in a car accident with defendant in September 2017. A state trooper issued defendant a traffic citation listing three violations, including “failure to exercise due care, pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated § 55-8-136.” Defendant eventually paid a fine for this citation. In April 2019, which was more than one year after the accident, plaintiff filed this personal injury action, arguing that instead of being subject to the standard one-year statute of limitations for personal injury claims, the statute of limitations for this case was extended to two years by virtue of Tenn. Code Ann. § 28-3-104(a)(2). Defendant filed a motion for summary judgment based on the statute of limitations issue, but the trial court ruled in favor of plaintiff, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

While “Tenn. Code Ann. § 28-3-104(a)(1) provides that personal injury actions shall be subject to a one-year statute of limitations,” there is an exception to that rule in subsection (a)(2). Pursuant to § 28-3-104(a)(2), the statute of limitations is extended to two years 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.

In this case, the sole issue was whether this statute was “applicable to traffic citations,” which was a matter of first impression in Tennessee.

The Court began its analysis by holding that the language of the statute was “clear and unambiguous,” and thus “its plain meaning” should be applied. (internal citations omitted). Defendant argued that “common sense dictate[d]” that a traffic citation not fall within the parameters of the statute, as he asserted that “a traffic citation is not a legally adequate charging instrument and that being issued a traffic citation and paying a fine is not a criminal charge or a criminal prosecution.” The Court, however, disagreed.

The Court pointed out that failure to exercise due care under Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-8-136 is a criminal offense in Tennessee, and that based on Tennessee law, when the state trooper issued the citation and then delivered it to the court, there was nothing more the officer needed to do regarding the charge. The Court reasoned:

In this case, the General Assembly specifically included that a criminal prosecution may be commenced by a law enforcement officer. Following the preparation, acceptance, and delivery of the original citation to the court, the individual charged with the traffic violation was required to answer the citation, and there was nothing further the police officer was required to file in order to commence the prosecution for such criminal offense. If our General Assembly intended to exclude traffic citations from the application of Tennessee Code Annotated § 28-3-104(a)(2) for policy reasons, it easily could have done so. It did not do so. It is not the role of this Court to rewrite the statute.

The Court thus held that “the traffic citation issued to Defendant for failure to exercise due care, which had been prepared, accepted, and the original citation filed with the court, is a criminal charge and a criminal prosecution by a law enforcement officer, such that Tennessee Code Annotated § 28-3-104(a)(2) is applicable to extend the statute of limitations in this action to two years.” The trial court’s order denying summary judgment was accordingly affirmed.

While filing a personal injury action related to a car accident within one year remains the best practice, this opinion could have major implications for cases in which a traffic citation was issued to one of the drivers. The Tennessee Supreme Court is likely to hear an application for permission to appeal in this case.  The more interesting question is whether the General Assembly will change the statute.

I caution lawyers not to rely on this Court of Appeals decision at this time.  Stated differently, I suggest that lawyers assume that the extended statute of limitations does NOT apply to simple traffic citations under the Tennessee Supreme Court weighs in on the issue.  I say this not because I think the Court of Appeals opinion is wrong but rather the potential harm of relying on the decision (your case will be dismissed if the opinion is reversed) is not worth the risk if the one-year deadline can be met.

NOTE: This opinion was released 3.5 months after oral arguments in this case.

 

UPDATE of June 14, 2021:  The Tennessee Supreme Court has denied the defendant’s permission to appeal in this case.    I expect, but do not know, the opinion of the Court of Appeals in Younger will be published and, if so, it will be considered binding authority in Tennessee courts.  R.Tenn. S. Ct. 4 (G)(2).

That said, I continue to recommend that caution be exercised on cases where a simple traffic citation has been issued under state law, especially if the Court of Appeals’ opinion is NOT published.   And, of course, the extension granted by the statute should not be relied upon at all if the citation was issued by a city or county employee under a city or county ordinance because violations of such ordinances are not criminal prosecutions.  City of LaVerne v. LeQuire, 2016 WL 6124117 (Tn. Ct. App.). [Thanks to John Chandler for the citation.]

Readers may wish to review my article on the Younger case as published in the  Tennessee Bar Journal.

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