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Statute of Limitations Bars Subrogation Claim in Car Wreck Case

June 25, 2016

The Tennessee Court of Appeals case State Farm Mutual Ins. Co. v. Blondin presents a clever (but unsuccessful) attempt to work around a statute of limitations defense.

Background
This action arises from an automobile accident that occurred on July 7, 2009. State Farm filed an action to recover amounts paid to its insured, Jenny Rone and a passenger in Ms. Rone’s vehicle under the uninsured motorist provision of Ms. Rone’s policy. The accident was caused by Olivia Blondin, the daughter of the vehicle owned by Robert Blondin; neither was insured. On May 17, 2010, State Farm filed a civil warrant against Robert Blondin seeking to recover for “damages to the property” of Ms. Rone caused by his negligence. The warrant sought damages of $7,371.22, plus pre-judgment interest, court costs, and process server fees. State Farm then sought to amend the civil warrant to recover for injuries both to the property and the person of its insured, Ms. Rone, and sought $24,999.99, plus interest, costs, fees, and attached the medical bills of Ms. Rone.

The trial court denied State Farm’s motion to amend on the basis that the statute of limitations had expired for the personal injuries. State Farm then attempted to appeal to the circuit court and then remove the action to the circuit court, both of which were denied, and the case was set for trial on May 20, 2011. State Farm then voluntarily dismissed the case without prejudice.

State Farm refiled the action in general sessions court on January 31, 2012. The warrant stated that the suit was brought to recover damages to both the person and/or property of plaintiff’s insured, Ms. Rone, and sought $7,371.22 in damages. The warrant again attached the medical bills. The Defendant, Mr. Blondin, moved to dismiss the action on the grounds that the action was not refiled within one year of the prior dismissal and was not refiled within the three year statute of limitations period for torts involving property damage. Blondin further argued that State Farm appeared to maintain a suit for personal injuries, which was never part of the prior lawsuit, and which claim was brought outside of the one year statute of limitations. Following a hearing, the court dismissed the case with prejudice.

State Farm appealed to the circuit court and filed an Amended Complaint seeking damages of $44,124.57. Blondin moved to dismiss the complaint as barred by the statute of limitations. The motion was denied and the case proceeded to trial resulting in a judgment for State Farm of $20,575.00, which was reduced for the comparative fault of Ms. Rone to $16,460.00. Blondin filed an appeal.

Ruling
On appeal Blondin raised the following issues: whether the trial court erred in awarding damages for medical bills when State Farm failed to offer competent medical proof of the reasonableness and necessity of medical treatment, whether the trial court erred in awarding uninsured motorist damages against Blondin when State Farm failed to offer the basis for the damages, whether the trial court erred in failing to grant Blondin’s Motion to Dismiss the claim for personal injury as time barred, and whether the trial court erred in its allocation of fault.

The Court began by discussing the motion to dismiss, which was based on Blondin’s assertion that State Farm’s claim for personal injury is barred by the one-year statute of limitations, because the claim was filed more than two-and-a-half years after the car wreck giving rise to the claim. The Court, however, held that the true issue was whether the January 31, 2012 warrant, which State Farm filed after nonsuiting the prior warrant, properly made an additional claim for personal injuries. The Court held that the first warrant filed in general sessions did not assert a claim for personal injuries, and that the personal injury claim was not made until after the applicable statute of limitations had run. The Court further held that the general sessions court properly denied State Farm’s attempt to add the cause of action after the statute of limitations had run. Finally, the Court held that State Farm’s attempts revive its case by voluntarily dismissing and refiling the action did not serve to expand the subject matter jurisdiction of the general sessions court to hear a time-barred action.

State Farm then attempted a novel line of argument regarding jurisdiction.  It pointed to the case Supreme Court case Ware v. Meharry for the proposition that pleadings in general sessions are not required to be in writing.  Thus, State Farm argued that the trial court erred in failing to apply Tenn. Code Ann. § 16-15-729, which essentially provides that cases originally filed in general sessions shall not be penalized in a higher court because of the informality of the initial pleadings. The Court rejected this argument, determining that  neither Ware nor the statute would result in an untimely action being made timely as the result of an appeal. The Court held that because the action was barred by the statute of limitations, it was not entitled to recover for personal injuries.

The Court then held that the evidence in the record did not preponderate against the allocation of fault.

This article and more timely developments in Tennessee law is available to subscribers of the Tennessee Tort Law Letter.  For more information, click here.  

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