Following an automobile collision, a plaintiff sued the defendants for injuries she allegedly sustained. The trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s complaint on the ground that her suit was barred by the two-year statute of limitations applicable to personal injury claims. The plaintiff appealed, contending that the statute of limitation was tolled.
The plaintiff filed her complaint on August 1, 2022. The complaint alleged that on February 12, 2020, she was injured as a result of a motor vehicle collision caused by the defendant, who was driving a truck owned by his employer. According to the complaint, both the plaintiff and the defendant were traveling in the same direction, the defendant was distracted, and he struck the plaintiff’s vehicle as she tried to merge into the lane in which he was traveling. The police report indicated that the plaintiff was “Susp At Fault” and was cited for improper lane change under O.C.G.A. § 40-6-48. Specifically, the police report stated:
Based on the evidence and testimonies provided, . . . [the plaintiff’s vehicle] had attempted to change lanes and struck [the defendant’s vehicle] on the driver side wheel with its right corner.
The defendant wasn’t cited for any traffic violation, and no injuries were reported on the scene.
The defendant raised the defenses of failure to state a claim and violation of the statute of limitation, among others. Then, the defendant filed a motion to dismiss. After a hearing, the trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s complaint, finding her claims time-barred. This appeal followed.
The Decision of the Court of Appeals
Judge Ken Hodges of the Georgia Court of Appeals wrote that under Georgia law, with certain exceptions not applicable in this case, “actions for injuries to the person shall be brought within two years after the right of action accrues,” citing O.C.G.A. § 9-3-33. Accordingly, the plaintiff had two years from the February 12, 2020 collision to file her lawsuit.
The defendants acknowledged that the COVID emergency orders issued by the Supreme Court of Georgia extended that time another 122 days to June 14, 2022. But the plaintiff didn’t file her complaint until August 1, 2022. The plaintiff didn’t dispute the defendant’s calculations or the fact that her complaint wasn’t filed until after the statute of limitation had expired. Instead, she argued that her suit was timely because the two-year limitation period in O.C.G.A. § 9-3-33 was tolled by the provisions of O.C.G.A. § 9-3-99, and that the trial court erred in finding that the tolling statute didn’t apply.
Judge Hodges explained that if the defendant carries his burden of showing that the suit was filed more than two years after the cause of action accrued, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to produce evidence showing that an issue existed regarding whether the limitation period was tolled. O.C.G.A. § 9-3-99 provides as follows:
The running of the period of limitations with respect to any cause of action in tort that may be brought by the victim of an alleged crime which arises out of the facts and circumstances relating to the commission of such alleged crime committed in this state shall be tolled from the date of the commission of the alleged crime or the act giving rise to such action in tort until the prosecution of such crime or act has become final or otherwise terminated, provided that such time does not exceed six years, except as otherwise provided in Code Section 9‑3‑33.1.
As such, the statute allows victims of a crime who might also have a civil cause of action to toll their civil action so as not to prejudice the criminal proceedings. The tolling effect doesn’t apply after “the prosecution of such crime or act has become final or otherwise terminated,” the statute states. In other words, “the limitation period for a tort action arising from a traffic violation is tolled until the prosecution for the violation is no longer pending,” Judge Hodges wrote, citing an earlier decision.
Further, the statute only tolls the limitation period for tort actions “brought by the victim of an alleged crime which arises out of the facts and circumstances relating to the commission of such alleged crime.” And the term “crime” as it is used in the statute encompasses a violation of the Uniform Rules of the Road, such as misdemeanor traffic violations.
With this framework in mind, the Court of Appeals considered whether the plaintiff was a criminal victim such that the proceeding related to her traffic citation triggered O.C.G.A. § 9-3-99 and tolled the applicable statute of limitation.
Tolling of the Two-Year Statute of Limitation by O.C.G.A. § 9-3-99 Based on a Hypothetical Crime Committed by the Defendant?
Judge Hodges noted that the collision in the present case happened on February 12, 2020, so the two-year statute of limitation for the tort claim extended to February 12, 2022, as did the two-year statute of limitation for the alleged misdemeanor traffic offense the plaintiff asserted the defendant may have committed: distracted driving. Thus, the State had two years from the February 12, 2020 collision to bring traffic charges against the defendant.
Even assuming that the COVID emergency orders issued by the Georgia Supreme Court extended that time, as they extended the time in which the plaintiff had to file her lawsuit, Judge Hodges said that the State would have had to charge the defendant with a traffic violation by June 14, 2022 prior to the plaintiff filing her lawsuit. Because the time for any prosecution against the defendant “has come and gone,” and because there never was any pending prosecution nor could there be in the future,” the tort claim in this case wasn’t tolled under O.C.G.A. § 9‑3‑99 based on any hypothetical crime committed by the defendant.
Tolling of the Two-Year Statute of Limitation by O.C.G.A. § 9-3-99 Based on a Crime Committed by the Plaintiff?
The plaintiff also argued that O.C.G.A. § 9-3-99 tolled the statute of limitation while criminal proceedings against her remained pending. She contended that because the citation arose out of the same facts and circumstances of the accident and citation that occurred on February 12, 2020, the applicable statute of limitation should have tolled the statute of limitations until the citation was disposed of.
The Court acknowledged that the uniform traffic citation issued by the officer to the plaintiff on February 12, 2020 commenced prosecution on the alleged misdemeanor traffic offense against her, and that O.C.G.A. § 9-3-99 tolls a statute of limitation until prosecution of a traffic citation issued by an officer is no longer pending. But decisions citing this proposition all involved traffic citations issued to a defendant in the subsequent tort action, not a citation issued to the plaintiff bringing the subsequent tort action. As a consequence, the plaintiff’s argument that the proceeding against her triggered O.C.G.A. § 9-3-99 and tolled the statute of limitation misconstrued O.C.G.A. § 9-3-99 and this Court’s decisions addressing the application of the tolling statute.
Judge Hodges explained that the plain and unambiguous language of the statute only tolls an action in tort “that may be brought by the victim of an alleged crime which arises out of the facts and circumstances relating to the commission of such alleged crime…” Georgia law is clear that the tolling provision in O.C.G.A. § 9-3-99 only applies to benefit the victim of a criminal act. As the Court of Appeals concluded in an earlier decision, the word “victim” as used in O.C.G.A. § 9-3-99 refers to “the person who is ‘acted on'” or “the person against whom a crime was perpetrated.” As a result, the statute did not benefit an alleged criminal perpetrator.
In this case, according to the police report, the plaintiff was the individual at fault, charged with failing to maintain her lane and perpetrating the traffic offense from which her cause of action in tort arose. It was undisputed that the defendant wasn’t cited for any traffic violation, nor was there any evidence that a criminal investigation into the incident occurred. Nothing in the statute itself nor in any authority expanded the scope of O.C.G.A. § 9-3-99 to the benefit of a plaintiff who is not the victim of an alleged associated crime.
The plaintiff argued that although she received the only citation given at the scene of the collision, that citation was not dispositive of her status as a victim for purposes of O.C.G.A. § 9-3-99, and a jury – rather than the trial court – should determine whether she was a “victim.” However, she did not cited a single case that allows the accused perpetrator of the crime to use O.C.G.A. § 9-3-99 to toll the applicable statute of limitation. To do so would allow criminal offenders to use their own criminal proceedings to expand their rights to a tort cause of action outside of the prescribed two-year statute of limitation, Judge Hodges opined.
The plain language in O.C.G.A. § 9-3-99 provides tolling for a tort action “that may be brought by the victim of an alleged crime which arises out of the facts and circumstances relating to the commission of such alleged crime committed in this state.” The judge went on to state:
If we presume – as we must – that the General Assembly meant what it said and said what it meant, we must conclude that the tolling provision does not apply given the circumstances at issue in this case. The statute does not contemplate tolling claims until a plaintiff can demonstrate that she was not at fault or can demonstrate through a trial that she may have been the victim. This is especially true where, as here, the plaintiff was the only individual cited for a traffic violation in connection with the motor vehicle collision and the time for issuing or prosecuting any other traffic violations has passed.
The plaintiff bears the burden of establishing that a statute of limitation has been tolled, and the plaintiff did not met her burden in this case. She did not show that she was a victim and, contrary to her argument, the statute of limitation on her claim wasn’t tolled until her citation was disposed of on April 27, 2022. The judgment was affirmed. Toliver v. Dawson, 2023 Ga. App. LEXIS 572 (Ga. App. December 29, 2023).
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