If you are injured in a car accident as the result of someone else’s negligence, you should be mindful of legal time limits to file a lawsuit against the responsible parties. Under Georgia law, the statute of limitations for filing a personal injury claim is two years “after the right of action accrues,” such as when the car accident took place. But it is not enough to simply file your complaint in court; you must also serve the defendants with your lawsuit before the two-year period expires.
Service is the formal process of notifying a defendant of your lawsuit. If the defendant lives in Georgia, service must be done in person, usually through the local sheriff’s office. As will be explained below, the rules for service are different when the defendant is a non-resident. In any case, improper service may lead to dismissal of your case.
Arias v. Cameron
Here’s a recent case that illustrates how service can affect a personal injury lawsuit. This is an ongoing case, so it should be noted the plaintiff’s allegations have not yet been proven in court.
According to the plaintiff, she was riding her bicycle one day in 2011 when she was struck and seriously injured by a car. She subsequently sued the driver of the car and his employer. The employer was named because the driver had allegedly rented the car in the course of his employment, and the employer was responsible for insuring the vehicle.
At the time of the accident, the driver produced a California driver’s license. When the plaintiff filed her lawsuit in 2013—a few weeks before Georgia’s two-year statute of limitations was set to expire—she accordingly assumed the driver was not a resident of Georgia. Under Georgia law, any non-resident who operates a motor vehicle within the state is presumed to authorize the Georgia Secretary of State to receive service of any lawsuit arising from an accident. Accordingly, the plaintiff believed she had completed service by serving the Secretary of State and sending a copy of the complaint by certified mail to the address on the driver’s license.
But the driver claimed he actually was a Georgia resident at the time of the accident and therefore the plaintiff’s service was improper. If that is true, then the plaintiff must serve him personally—even if he now lives in California—rather than through the Secretary of State. The driver further argued that even if he was a non-resident, the service was still improper because he did not receive the plaintiff’s certified mailing until after the statute of limitations expired.
Once the plaintiff learned of the driver’s claim he was a resident, she immediately attempted to personally serve him in California through a local sheriff’s office. The sheriff made four unsuccessful attempts to serve the driver. Ultimately, the plaintiff had to hire a private process server to wait outside the driver’s residence until he appeared.
The defendant still maintained the improper service required dismissal of the lawsuit. The plaintiff countered with her own motion to dismiss. In Georgia, a plaintiff may voluntarily dismiss and refile a lawsuit within six months, resetting the clock with respect to service. A federal judge sided with the plaintiff. The U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed the plaintiff was well within her rights because, among other things, it was clear the defendant was trying to evade service in an attempt to run out the statute of limitations.