Traffic Citations Can Extend the Statute of Limitations for Personal Injury Actions to Two Years in Tennessee – Insurance Coverage Corner Blog Post by Graham Thompson
Insurance Coverage Corner Blog Post by Graham Thompson.
On January 28, 2021, the Tennessee Court of Appeals issued a ruling in the case of Reginald M. Younger v. Kibreab Kidane Okbahhanes, No. E202000429COAR10CV, 2021 WL 289332 (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 28, 2021). The Court held the one-year statute of limitations for personal injury actions under Tenn. Code Ann. § 28-3-104(a)(1) can be extended to two years pursuant to Tenn. Code Ann. § 28-3-104(a)(2).
Tenn. Code Ann. § 28-3-104(a) reads as follows:
(a)(1) Except as provided in subdivision (a)(2), the following actions shall be commenced within one (1) year after the cause of action accrued:
- Actions for libel, injuries to the person, false imprisonment, malicious prosecution, or breach of marriage promise;
- Civil actions for compensatory or punitive damages, or both, brought under the federal civil rights statutes; and
- Actions for statutory penalties.
(2) A cause of action listed in subdivision (a)(1) shall be commenced within two (2) years after the cause of action accrued, if:
- Criminal charges are brought against any person alleged to have caused or contributed to the injury;
- 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:
- A law enforcement officer;
- A district attorney general; or
- A grand jury; and
- The cause of action is brought by the person injured by the criminal conduct against the party prosecuted for such conduct.
(3) This subsection (a) shall be strictly construed.
Younger relates to a traffic collision that occurred in September 2017 in Roane County, Tennessee. Defendant Okbahhanes was issued a traffic citation for (1) failure to exercise due care, (2) violation of financial responsibility law [i.e., proof of insurance], and (2) failure to carry registration documents. In October 2017 Okbahhanes paid a fine relating to the charge of failure to exercise due care; the remaining charges were dismissed in November 2017.
In April 2019, Younger filed an action against Okbahhanes, alleging that the action was timely pursuant to Tenn. Code Ann. § 28-3-104(a)(2). Okbahhanes filed an answer denying the allegations against him and pleading an affirmative defense that the action was time-barred. Okbahhanes later filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the one-year statute of limitations under Tenn. Code Ann. § 28-3-104(a)(1) applied. The trial court denied the motion for summary judgment, finding that the traffic citation for failure to exercise due care was related to the conduct that gave rise to the action; that the citation was a criminal charge; that the citation commenced a prosecution; and that Younger was allegedly injured by Okbahhanes’ criminal conduct.
Okbahhanes appealed the trial court’s order to the Tennessee Court of Appeals, which affirmed the trial court’s ruling. The Court of Appeals held that in construing Tenn. Code Ann. § 28-3-104(a)(2), the plain meaning of a statute’s words must be applied. Baker v. State, 417 S.W.3d 428, 433 (Tenn. 2013). When a statute’s language is clear and unambiguous, the statute is enforced as written. Frazier v. State, 495 S.W.3d 246, 249 (Tenn. 2016).
Tennessee law is clear that a violation of Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-8-136 for failure to exercise due care is a Class C misdemeanor and, therefore, a crime. The Court of Appeals held that the language of Tenn. Code Ann. § 28-3-104(a)(2) is clear and ambiguous. As such, the Court of Appeals held that the traffic citation issued to Okbahhanes for failure to exercise due care is a criminal charge, and a criminal prosecution by a law enforcement officer, such that Tenn. Code Ann. § 28-3-104(a)(2) acted to extend the statute of limitations to two years.
The statutes contained in Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-8-101 et seq. constitute the Rules of the Road when it comes to operating motor vehicles in the State of Tennessee. Such violations include obeying stop signs and traffic lights, driving on the wrong side of the road, maintaining a safe distance, signaling, etc. Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-8-103 states that it is a Class C misdemeanor for any person to violate the Rules of the Road. Violation of the financial responsibility and registration laws contained in Younger are also Class C misdemeanors.
A number of questions remain unanswered with regard to Tenn. Code Ann. § 28-3-104(a)(2), and it may yet come before the Court of Appeals again under different facts. The Court of Appeals did not discuss in detail Okbahhanes’ violation of the financial responsibility and vehicle registration laws, which were dismissed prior to the lawsuit being filed. Although they are Class C misdemeanors, it stands to reason that violation of those laws was not conduct, a transaction, or an occurrence that caused the underlying collision or gave rise to Younger’s cause of action. If Okbahhanes had been cited with those paperwork violations, but not failure to exercise due care, would the statute of limitations have been extended to two years?
Other questions arise in the area of premises liability. Violation of a state building code is a Class B misdemeanor. Tenn. Code Ann. 68-120-108. Violation of county building codes is a Class C misdemeanor. Tenn. Code Ann. 5-20-105(b)(1). Suppose, for example, that a person is injured due to alleged improper design or construction in violation of a building code or ordinance. If the person responsible for the violation is later cited by the authorities and sued by the injured person, would the statute of limitations be extended to two years under Tenn. Code Ann. § 28-3-104(a)(2).
Okbahhanes has until March 1, 2021, to appeal the Order of the Court of Appeals.
The case is Reginald M. Younger v. Kibreab Kidane Okbahhanes, No. E202000429COAR10CV, 2021 WL 289332 (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 28, 2021)
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