• Beneke v. Parker: Traffic Citations as Mechanisms for Tolling the Statute of Limitations
  • December 1, 2009
  • Law Firm: Swift, Currie, McGhee & Hiers, LLP - Atlanta Office
  • Previously, a civil defendant involved in personal injury litigation stemming from an auto accident could confidently rely on the strength of a statute of limitations defense for a suit filed more than two years after the accident occurred. The Supreme Court of Georgia’s September 28, 2009 decision in Beneke v. Parker, 2009 Ga. LEXIS 491, *1 (Sept. 29, 2009), has now modified the landscape of personal injury lawsuits by expanding the available mechanisms available to toll the statute of limitations.

    On April 27, 2005, a Plaintiff sustained serious injuries after the vehicle in which she was a passenger overturned after being struck from behind by Defendant’s vehicle. Following the accident, Defendant received a citation for following Plaintiff’s vehicle too closely, a violation of O.C.G.A. § 40-6-49 and, more importantly, technically a misdemeanor under Georgia criminal law. On May 11, 2007, Plaintiff filed a personal injury suit for negligence against Defendant.

    Arguing that O.C.G.A. § 9-3-33, Georgia’s personal injury statute of limitations, barred Plaintiff’s suit since she failed to timely file suit within two years of the April 27, 2005 accident, Defendant appropriately moved for summary judgment. Initially, the trial court granted the motion. Less than a month later, Plaintiff moved the trial court to reconsider its prior ruling arguing that the disposition of Defendant’s traffic citation tolled the statute of limitations. In support of her tolling argument, Plaintiff cited O.C.G.A. § 9-3-99, which provides that:

    [t]he running of the period of limitations with respect to any cause of action in tort¿ shall be tolled from the date of the commission of the alleged crime or the act giving rise to the such action in tort until the prosecution of such crime or act has become final or otherwise terminated¿

    Utilizing this statutory provision, Plaintiff asserted an entitlement to a 22-day tolling of the statute of limitations, arguing that Defendant’s ticket did not become final until May 19, 2005. After reconsideration, the trial court vacated its prior order and thereafter denied Defendant’s motion for summary judgment.

    The Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s denial of summary judgment, but vacated the trial court’s order that Defendant committed a “crime” sufficient to trigger the tolling provision outlined in O.C.G.A. § 9-3-99 and instead held that such a decision should be left to a jury. Beneke v. Parker, 293 Ga. App. 186, 188 (2008). The appellate court determined that the tolling of the statute of limitations could only occur if the traffic accident had been either intentional or if Defendant’s acts constituted criminal negligence. Utilizing O.C.G.A. § 16-2-1 (b), the Court found that the Legislature had clearly defined “criminal negligence” in such a manner as to incorporate a mens rea component ¿ a question of fact whose resolution could only be determined by a jury.

    The Supreme Court of Georgia later affirmed the denial of summary judgment, but did so by finding that the plain language of O.C.G.A. § 9-3-99 included misdemeanor traffic violations as “crimes” sufficient to toll tort-based causes of action. The Court found that the Legislature, by its own construction, intended to treat violations of the Uniform Rules of the Road as misdemeanors. Since O.C.G.A. § 16-1-3 (9) defines a misdemeanor as “any crime other than a felony,” the court found a misdemeanor to have been clearly categorized as a “crime.” By making this determination, the Court removed the impediment of having a jury determine whether a “crime” involved either intent or criminal negligence. More importantly, this paved the way for a violation of the motor vehicle code to serve as a tolling mechanism for any personal injury lawsuit resulting from a traffic collision where the one is issued a citation.

    The short-term implications of the Beneke decision involve a closer correlation between the civil and criminal components of litigation that spawns from a traffic accident. But the decision’s effect is farther reaching as a court would likely apply Beneke to boating litigation since violations of the nautical Rules of the Road also constitute misdemeanors. Moreover, it is not altogether clear how future courts will handle issues such as the effect a citation might have on a respondeat superior claim. The Beneke decision does serve as a reminder for potential civil litigants to involve counsel early in case evaluation in order to ensure procedural defenses can be properly preserved.