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GEORGIA SUPREME COURT RULES THAT THE STATUTE OF LIMITATION FOR AN AUTO PERSONAL INJURY CASE IS TOLLED UNTIL FINAL DISPOSITION OF DEFENDANT’S TRAFFIC OFFENSE

Posted by H. Lee Pruett

In Beneke v. Parker, Case No. S08G2078 (Ga. Sup. Ct., Sept. 28, 2009), the plaintiff’s Complaint was deemed timely even though it was filed two years and two weeks after the date of accident giving rise to the lawsuit. On April 27, 2005, the plaintiff was a passenger in a car which was rear-ended by the defendant. The defendant was cited for following too closely. The plaintiff filed her complaint for personal injuries on May 11, 2007. The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the two-year statute of limitations had run, but the trial court denied the motion. The trial court held that O.C.G.A. § 9-3-99 tolled the statute of limitations until the defendant paid the fine in connection with his traffic citation. O.C.G.A. § 9-3-99 provides that the limitation period is “tolled from the date of 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.”

On appeal, the Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, but ruled that a jury question remained as to whether the defendant committed a “crime” as defined by O.C.G.A. § 16-2-1. This statute defines “crime” as an act or omission committed with intent or criminal negligence. The Court of Appeals held that a violation of one of the Uniform Rules of the Road, such as following too closely, would usually not constitute a “crime” under Georgia law. The Court of Appeals held that, in this case, a jury must decide whether the defendant acted with criminal intent or criminal negligence. (If not, the two-year statute of limitations would bar the plaintiff’s claim.)

The Georgia Supreme Court affirmed the denial of the defendant’s motion for summary judgment and reversed the Court of Appeals’ ruling that there is a question of fact as to whether the traffic charge is a “crime” that would toll the statute of limitations in the civil case. The Court pointed out that a violation of one of the Rules of the Road is a misdemeanor, which is defined as “any crime other than a felony” under O.C.G.A. § 16-1-3(9). Thus, O.C.G.A. § 9-3-99 would apply to toll the statute of limitations until the defendant’s traffic citation for following too closely was finalized. It was unnecessary, therefore, for the jury to determine whether the defendant acted with criminal intent or criminal negligence.

Although the Court agreed with the Court of Appeals that such a ruling “will have a significant impact on personal injury actions arising out of vehicle accidents by tolling the statute of limitation in those situations where a traffic citation is issued,” the Court stated that the statutory language was clear, and that it was up to the Legislature to limit O.C.G.A. § 9-3-99 to criminal intent or criminal negligence crimes should it want that result.

As a practical matter, then, before counsel for the defendant files a motion for summary judgment based on the running of the statute of limitations, counsel must determine whether a traffic citation was issued in connection with the accident at issue and the date of the final disposition of the charge. The statute of limitations begins to run from the date of the disposition of the charge, not the date of the accident.