Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Superior Court Begrudgingly Applies Statute of Limitations Discovery Rule in Limited Tort Context

In its decision from earlier this week in the case of Varner-Mort v. Kapfhammer, No. 261 WDA 2014, 2015 Pa. Super. 14 (Pa. Super. Jan. 21, 2015 Ford Elliott, P.J.E, Allen, and Strassburger, J.J.)(Op. by Strassburger), the Pennsylvania Superior Court addressed the application of the discovery rule in the context of a limited tort case.  In the end, the court reversed a trial court's entry of summary judgment in favor of a defendant.

This matter arose out of a motor vehicle accident that occurred on May 6, 2009.  There was no dispute that the Plaintiffs were covered by the Limited Tort Election.

Over two years later, on June 27, 2011, the husband and wife Plaintiffs filed their negligence personal injury/loss of consortium Complaint. 

In his Answer and New Matter, the Defendant asserted a statute of limitations defense.  The defense later filed a motion for summary judgment alleging, in part, that medical records produced in discovery confirmed that the Plaintiff sought out medical treatment on the date of the accident and was diagnosed with injuries.  The injuries were initially diagnosed as a back sprain with paresthesia (numbness and tingling) to the lower extremity. 

Accordingly, it was the defense position that the injured party Plaintiff was aware of her alleged car accident-related injuries from the date of the subject accident.   The defense also noted that the records confirmed that the Plaintiff continued to treat for low back complaints up through 2011. 

As such, it was the defense position that, pursuant to the applicable two year statute of limitations, the Plaintiffs were required to file their claim by May 6, 2011.  The defense contended that, since the Complaint was not filed until June of 2011, the Plaintiffs' claims were barred by the statute of limitations.

Given the application of the limited tort election, the Plaintiffs countered with the creative argument that, under the discovery rule, the statute of limitations should not be deemed to begin to run until the injured party Plaintiff discovered that she sustained a "serious injury" as a result of the accident.  In this regard, the Plaintiffs argued that the injured party did not have an MRI until August of 2009.  Accordingly, there was an alleged genuine issue of material fact as to when the Plaintiff discovered that she sustained a "serious injury" such that the motion for summary judgment should be rejected and the case allowed to proceed to a jury.

Whereas the trial court in Blair County rejected the Plaintiffs' argument and granted summary judgment on the statute of limitations issue, the Pennsylvania Superior Court accepted this argument of the Plaintiffs and overruled the trial court.

In so ruling the Varner-Mort relied upon the prior similar case of Walls v. Scheckler, 700 A.2d 532 (Pa. Super. 1997), which addressed the same issue and came to the same result, i.e.,  the statute of limitations in limited tort case should be deemed to start to run when a Plaintiff is aware that he or she may have sustained a "serious injury."

The Walls court reasoned that "Since, under the provisions of [Section 1705, the limited tort statute], a limited tort plaintiff does not have a valid cause of action unless and until an injury rises to the level of a 'serious injury,' and since the statute of limitations period does not ordinarily begin to run until a cause of action accrues, we conclude that the statute of limitations period cannot begin to run on a limited tort plaintiff until he knows or reasonably should know that he has sustained the requisite serious injury."  Walls, 700 A.2d at 533-534.

Notably, the Judges deciding this Varner-Mort case stated that, while they were bound to follow the Walls decision as binding precedent, the Varner-Mort majority viewed the Walls decision as being "just plain wrong."  Varner-Mort at p. 7.  The Varner-Mort majority would have preferred to follow the discovery rule in its ordinary application.

This was particularly so given that, regardless of the Plaintiff's tort status, the Plaintiff was still entitled to pursue a claim economic damages, such as wage losses or medical expenses, even if the Plaintiff failed to show that she sustained a serious injury.  The Varner-Mort majority failed to see why a limited tort plaintiff should be treated any differently in terms of the statute of limitations beginning to run when the Plaintiff was aware of her physical injury from the accident at the scene or when it was diagnosed in the emergency room on the day of the accident.

Nevertheless, the Varner-Mort court obviously reluctantly applied the law as stated in the Walls case and ruled that genuine issues of material fact existed as to when the Plaintiff would have been aware that she sustained a serious injury such that the trial court's entry of summary judgment would be reversed and the case remanded for further proceedings.

Anyone wishing to review this Opinion may click this LINK.

President Judge Kate Ford-Elliott's Concurring Opinion can be viewed HERE.  In her Concurring Opinion, President Judge Ford-Elliott noted her agreement with the result and distanced herself from the statement that the Walls decision was wrongly decided.

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