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How Does a Traffic Ticket Affect the Timing of a Personal Injury Claim in Georgia?

If you want to file a civil lawsuit against someone in Georgia, you need to be aware of the statute of limitations. This is basically the legal time limit to file a claim. For personal injury cases, Georgia’s statute of limitations is normally two years from the date the action “accrued.” For example, let us say you were injured in a car accident that took place on November 1, 2016. Under Georgia law, you need to sue the negligent driver no later than November 1, 2018. Even if you file one day past this deadline, the judge will throw out your case because legally, no court may hear a case once the statute of limitations has expired.

Williams v. Durden

However, there are certain events that can “toll” the statute of limitations. Tolling effectively stops the clock for a specified period of time. The burden is on the plaintiff to prove there is some legal grounds for tolling. In other words, do not assume you can simply file a personal injury lawsuit after the expiration of the two-year time limit unless you can cite a specific reason for tolling under Georgia law.

Here is an example of a recent case from the Georgia Court of Appeals in which a plaintiff was able to provide such a reason. This is a personal injury case arising from an auto accident. The accident itself occurred on October 16, 2014. The defendant’s vehicle collided with the plaintiff’s car. Police responded to the accident scene and issued the defendant a traffic ticket for “following too closely.”

The ticket directed the defendant to appear in court on the traffic charge on November 18, 2014. The defendant decided to pay the ticket instead on October 27, 2014. The way traffic tickets work in Georgia, the fine actually represents the defendant’s “bond,” or promise to appear in court. When the defendant here paid the fine, he effectively forfeited that bond as of the date specified on the ticket, which was still November 18.

The timing of all this matters because of its effect on the statute of limitations. While the two-year limit in personal injury cases normally starts on the day the action accrues–i.e., the day of the accident–Georgia law stops the clock when there are criminal charges pending. In this context, the traffic ticket is considered a criminal charge, albeit a misdemeanor. So as long as the defendant’s traffic ticket remained “pending” in municipal court, the two-year clock on the plaintiff’s personal injury claim did not start to run.

The plaintiff filed her lawsuit on November 10, 2016. The defendant argued this was too late, since he paid his traffic ticket on October 27, 2014, more than two years earlier. But the Court of Appeals held that the defendant’s traffic ticket remained pending until November 18, 2016–the day the defendant actually forfeited his bond and the municipal court made a final disposition of the criminal case. Since the plaintiff filed her complaint within two years of this final disposition date, she was free to proceed with her case.