In Georgia, there is normally a two-year statute of limitations for personal injury claims. So for instance, if you were injured in a car accident that took place on March 1, 2018, you would have until March 1, 2020, to sue the negligent driver. If you tried to sue after the statute of limitations expired, a court would be required to dismiss your case, regardless of the merits.
Now, Georgia law also “tolls” or stops the two-year clock when the personal injury claim arises from a criminal act (as opposed to mere negligence). This tolling period lasts from the date of the criminal act “until the prosecution of such crime or act has become final or otherwise terminated.” However, this tolling period typically cannot exceed six years.
Department of Public Safety v. Ragsdale
The Supreme Court of Georgia recently addressed whether or not this tolling period also applies to certain deadlines that arise in personal injury claims against a government agency. In this case, Department of Public Safety v. Ragsdale, the plaintiff was injured in an accident caused by a man fleeing the police. The plaintiff sued the Georgia Department of Public Safety (DPS), alleging its officers’ actions contributed to the accident and his injuries.
Personal injury claims against the government must comply with the Georgia Tort Claims Act (GTCA). Among other things, the GTCA required the plaintiff to send a pre-lawsuit notice to the DPS containing certain information. This notice must be sent within six months of when the injury occurred, i.e., no later than six months after the accident occurred.
In this case, the accident took place on October 31, 2014. The plaintiff sent his notice to the DPS in December 2014, well within the six-month period. Unfortunately, the notice turned out to be incomplete. The plaintiff therefore sent a second notice in March 2017. The DPS argued this notice was filed too late and moved to dismiss the plaintiff’s lawsuit on those grounds.
In response, the plaintiff argued that since his injuries were the result of a criminal act (the driver fleeing the police), the six-month notice period should be tolled until the prosecution of the driver was finished. Both the trial judge and the Georgia Court of Appeals agreed with this interpretation of the law and denied the motion to dismiss.
The Supreme Court sided with the Department. It held the tolling of personal injury claims for criminal acts only applied to a statute of limitations, not a pre-suit notice period. The Court noted that in prior cases, it has treated the notice period as a “condition precedent to bringing suit” against the government and “ “not itself a six-month statute of limitations.” Because the courts must construe the GTCA narrowly, the Supreme Court said it was compelled to find the plaintiff’s lawsuit against the DPS was barred due to the late notice. The Court acknowledged this may be an “inequitable” result but said it was up to the General Assembly to change the law in this area.