• Do Statutes Of Limitations Apply To Guardians?
  • May 4, 2005
  • Law Firm: Buckingham, Doolittle & Burroughs, LLP - Canton Office
  • It is an axiom of American jurisprudence that a right of action, once acquired, can be lost with the passage of time. Thus, In Ohio, actions for bodily injury or property damage must be commenced within two years after the injury or damage occurs. The law, however, gives claimants under a "disability" extended periods of time in which to bring an action. Persons of "unsound mind" and persons within the age of minority (less than eighteen years) are not required to file an action until after the "disability" is removed. For a person under eighteen, the "disability" is removed when the age of eighteen is attained.

    But what happens when a guardian is appointed for a person of "unsound mind"? With the appointment of the guardian, is not the disability removed because of the guardian's ability (and legal duty) to seek redress on the ward's behalf?

    These are the questions that were before the Supreme Court of Ohio in Weaver v. Edwin Shaw Hospital, 1 a case of first impression decided last December.

    At age 17, Morgan Weaver suffered a traumatic brain injury from a bicycle-auto accident. Subsequently, while a patient at Edwin Shaw Hospital and at HealthSouth of Erie Rehabilitation Hospital, he allegedly sustained injuries in falls from wheelchairs at both facilities. Following the incidents (but not because of them), he was adjudicated an incompetent (a probate court found him to be of "unsound mind"), and his parents were appointed his legal guardians. The parents subsequently filed medical negligence claims against the hospitals for injuries from the wheelchair incidents. Medical negligence claims are subject to a one-year statute of limitations, and the hospitals moved for dismissal on grounds that the claims were filed outside that period. The trial court agreed and dismissed the actions.

    On appeal to Ohio's Fifth Appellate District, the trial court's decision was reversed. The appellate court held that although guardians had been appointed for Morgan Weaver his "disability" hadn't been removed and the statute of limitations was suspended. On application of the hospitals, the supreme court accepted a discretionary appeal.

    The court held that the appointment of a guardian for a person of unsound mind neither removes the disability nor commences the running of the statute of limitations. The court reasoned that "disability," as used in the tolling statute, refers to the status of the person entitled to bring an action, i.e., the ward. It then concluded that the tolling statute applies until "the disability is removed," that is, until Morgan's mental abilities are restored. The Weaver court held that a person's lack of capacity to commence a legal proceeding, as the hospitals argued, is not the "disability" used in the statute; rather, that "disability" refers to Morgan's mental condition.

    While the court's decision is in line with the rule in the majority of jurisdictions, there are compelling arguments against it: The concern for protecting the right of disabled persons to sue, which underlies the tolling statute, doesn't arise where a guardian has been appointed; the date of a guardian's appointment provides certainty in deciding when the statute of limitations begins to run; and holding the guardian to a statute of limitations will work to assure that claims are brought promptly, to the benefit of all parties. The court, however, didn't address the policy concerns but confined its analysis to the language of the statute, concluding that since the legislature did not state that the tolling ended upon the appointment of a guardian, it wouldn't read that qualification into the statute.

    The court did not defend the soundness of its decision, writing instead that policy considerations are "best left to the general assembly." For caregivers or others whose work entails contact with persons under a mental debility, the message to take from the Weaver decision is that damage claims brought on behalf of such persons may never be time-barred, unless relief is provided by new legislation.

    1 (2004), 104 Ohio St.3d 390, 2004-Ohio-6549.