Law Review: Timing is everything
Law is rarely black and white. Lawyers live in the gray — arguing the intricacies and ambiguities of the law for the benefit of their clients. But clear, and often harsh, lines exist when it comes to statues of limitations.
A statute of limitations is a law passed by the Legislature establishing the time limit for commencing a legal cause of action for particular conduct. If the cause of action is not brought within the limitation period, it will, with few exceptions, be forever barred. The limitation period typical begins when the conduct giving rise to the cause of action occurs or when the damage caused by the conduct is first discovered. In California, some examples of statutes of limitations are: Breach of oral contract – two years; breach of written contract – four years; personal injury or wrongful death – two years.
In a recent case from the California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, Paul Cardenas et al., v. Horizon Senior Living Inc., the court rejected claims for wrongful death and other causes of action filed outside the statute of limitations’ period. The decision is a stark reminder that even deserving litigants may forfeit meritorious claims if not timely initiated.
Mauricio Cardenas was a resident of a senior care facility operated by Horizon Senior Living, Inc. Cardenas suffered from dementia and, on many occasions, left the facility without the knowledge of the staff. In 2014, Cardenas wandered several miles from the facility and was hit by a car and tragically killed.
The director of the facility, Christopher Skiff, and the manager, Gary Potts, were charged with and ultimately convicted of felonies for their role in Cardenas’ death. Both were convicted of elder abuse and Skiff was convicted of manslaughter.
For reasons not stated in the appellate case, the heirs of Cardenas waited nearly six years to bring a civil lawsuit against Horizon, Skiff and Potts for negligence, willful misconduct, elder abuse, and wrongful death. Horizon filed a demurrer to bar the case from proceeding against it on the ground the complaint was filed outside of the two-year statute of limitations. The trial court granted Horizon’s demurrer and Cardenas’ family appealed the decision.
On appeal, the Cardenas family argued the claims against Horizon were timely filed within one year of the felony convictions of Skiff and Potts. Pursuant to California Code of Civil Procedure section 340.3, statutes of limitations for conduct upon which a criminal defendant is convicted of a felony are extended by one year from the date of the criminal judgment. The court acknowledged that the 340.3 extension applies to the claims brought against Skiff and Potts, but not those against Horizon.
Despite the fact Skiff and Potts were employed by and acting through Horizon at the time of their criminal conduct and Cardenas’ death, Horizon – the corporation – was not convicted of a felony. On such fact, the court of appeal refused to apply the section 340.3 statute of limitations extension to Horizon; and because the Cardenas family did not file its lawsuit against Horizon within two years of Cardenas’ death, the family’s claims against Horizon are forever barred.
This case highlights the strict consequences of failing to initiate litigation within the applicable statute of limitations period. The Cardenas family is likely left without direct monetary recourse against Horizon – the alleged culpable corporation with presumably more insurance proceeds and assets at its disposal than Skiff and Potts. It is an unfortunate outcome for the Cardenas family. Always err on the side of caution when it comes preserving legal claims: Know the limitation period and initiate litigation early.
Ravn R. Whitington is a partner at Porter Simon licensed in California and Nevada. Whitington is a member of the firm’s Trial Practice Group, where he focuses on all aspects of civil litigation. He has a diverse background in trial practice ranging from complex business disputes to personal injury to construction law, and all matters in between. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://www.portersimon.com. Like us on Facebook
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