The April term of court for the Georgia Court of Appeals will end on July 15. In these last weeks of the term, the Court often will issue opinions in its most difficult cases. In Harrison v. McAfee, Case No. A16A0648 (decided July 7, 2016), the whole court (all 15 judges) issued an opinion that overruled several other decisions of the Court of Appeals and effectively lengthened the period in which crime victims can file tort claims against certain defendants.
The case arose out of the attempted robbery of a bar. Mr. Harrison was shot in the arm when a masked man burst into the Shamrock Bar in an apparent attempt to rob the bar. The perpetrator was never found and prosecuted. Mr. Harrison filed a lawsuit against the owner of the bar alleging that the owner had been negligent in maintaining the premises. Mr. Harrison filed the lawsuit slightly more than two years after the incident, and the owner claimed that the complaint was barred by Georgia’s two-year statute of limitations for personal injury cases. Mr. Harrison argued that the limitations period was tolled by another statute that applied to tort cases filed by crime victims. The trial court, relying upon existing Georgia precedent, concluded that the tolling provision applied only to tort claims against the perpetrator of the crime and dismissed the tort claims against the owner of the bar.
The Court of Appeals, acknowledging its prior precedents, set aside those prior precedents and agreed with Mr. Harrison. The relevant tolling statute, O.C.G.A. § 9-3-99, provides as follows:
The running of the period of limitations with respect to any cause of action in tort that may be brought by the victim of an alleged crime which arises out of the facts and circumstances relating to the commission of such alleged crime committed in this state shall be tolled from the date of the 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, provided that such time does not exceed six years ….
In earlier cases, the Court had concluded that the tolling provision only applied to tort claims brought against persons accused of the crimes of which the plaintiff was the victim. Opinion, pp. 5-8. However, in revisiting those precedents, the Court found that the plain language of the statute did not reflect such a limitation. Opinion, p. 9. The statute applied to “any cause of action in tort” brought by a crime victim that “arises out of the facts and circumstances relating to the commission of such alleged crime.” The plain language of the statute did not limit the tolling provision only to actions against certain defendants. Therefore, it applied to Mr. Harrison’s negligence claim against the owner of the bar in which he was injured.
This reliance on the plain language of the tolling statute increases the range of cases to which it could be applied. On its face, the tolling statute is not limited to personal injury claims. Therefore, it could potentially be applied to a wide variety of tort cases in which a plaintiff contends he was injured by criminal conduct when those claims are not against the perpetrators of the crime. Instead of having only two years to sue (or four years for a case not involving a personal injury) a victim could have up to six years to file suit.
The Opinion is available at https://efast.gaappeals.us/download?filingId=8947531a-86a5-48f5-adf7-ae6c3d26365a
For more information on this topic, contact your Appellate counsel at Smith, Gambrell & Russell, LLP.