There is always some time limit applicable to bringing a lawsuit. This is known as the “statute of limitations.” In Georgia, for example, the statute of limitations for personal injury claims is typically two years. In other words, if you are injured in a car accident on May 1, 2016, you have until May 1, 2018 to sue the negligent driver for damages. Even if you file just a couple of days after the statute of limitations expires, your case is barred as a matter of law.
Langley v. MP Spring Lake, LLC
While two years is the normal statute of limitations in Georgia, there may be situations in which a personal injury victim actually has less time to file a claim. Georgia courts have long recognized the rights of parties to “contract” away certain legal rights. According to a recent decision by the Georgia Court of Appeals, this includes the time frame to file a personal injury lawsuit.
This case involves a dispute between a landlord and tenant. In March 2014, the tenant was injured when she “fell in a common area” of her apartment complex. Specifically, she said that her foot “got caught and slid on a crumbling portion of curb that was in a state of disrepair.” In her lawsuit, filed exactly two years after the accident, the tenant said the landlord’s negligence in failing to repair the curb was the proximate cause of her injuries.
The landlord replied by moving for summary judgment on the grounds that the tenant’s lease actually shortened her time to file a personal injury claim from two years to just one year. According to the lease, the tenant “agrees and understands that any legal action against Management or Owner must be instituted within one year of the date any claim or cause of action arises and that any action filed after one year from such date shall be time barred as a matter of law.” In other words, the legal deadline for the plaintiff to bring her lawsuit expired in March 2015, but since she did not file until March 2016, the courts could not hear the case.
Both the trial court and the Court of Appeals agreed with the landlord’s interpretation of the law. As the Court of Appeals explained in its opinion, “contractual-limitation periods are enforceable in Georgia,” even when they override an existing statute of limitations. The Court further said it could find no legal authority to suggest “such provisions are inapplicable to personal-injury actions.” The lease was in no way ambiguous on this point. It expressly stated the one-year limitation period applied to “any legal action” against the landlord.
It should be noted that it is possible for a contract to actually extend the statute of limitations rather than restrict it. As the Georgia Supreme Court has stated in decisions going back more than a century, there is simply no judicial restriction on the right of private parties to agree to a different statute of limitations.