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Court Finds that Equitable Tolling of Statute of Limitations Did Not Apply to Prevent Lawsuit’s Dismissal

By on July 7, 2017 in Court Rulings with 0 Comments

Plaintiff Ronald Rowell was injured on February 17, 2011 when his tractor trailer, parked in a commercial warehouse located in New Jersey, was struck by another vehicle. Initially, plaintiff sued the defendants he believed were responsible for the accident. However, after the statute of limitations expired, the plaintiff discovered the correct parties responsible for the accident. Plaintiff then dismissed his first lawsuit and refiled suit against defendants Jeffrey Stecker and his employer Honey Locust Farms LLC in Rowell v. Stecker, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS (3d Cir. June 29, 2017). The issue before the Third Circuit Court of Appeals (the federal appeals court) was whether, under New Jersey law, the statute of limitations could be equitably tolled so as to prevent a dismissal.

The Third Circuit noted that the limitations period under New Jersey law may be equitably tolled under the following circumstances: “where the plaintiff (1) has been ‘induced or tricked by his adversary’s misconduct’ into allowing the deadline to pass; (2) has been prevented from filing suit ‘in some extraordinary way’; or (3) has ‘timely asserted his rights mistakenly by either defective pleading or in the wrong forum.” Further, the doctrine of equitable tolling is to be applied sparingly, absent intentional inducement or trickery by a defendant. Finally, the Court noted that equitable tolling “requires the exercise of reasonable insight and diligence by a person seeking its protection.”

Here, the Court found that the plaintiff failed to demonstrate that he was reasonably diligent. The correct name of the driver and his employer were contained in the accident report that Rowell filed with his employer. However, his attorneys made no effort to obtain the report. The report was not obtained until September 2014 by one of the defendants in the first lawsuit. Had his attorneys timely obtained Rowell’s accident report from his employer, they would have been able to timely identify the correct name of the driver who struck him, along with the name of the driver’s employer.

Further, there was no evidence that the defendants were responsible for the plaintiff’s untimely filing. Even if the accident was not reported to the police, the defendants took no action to actively conceal their identity. Due to the lack of defendants’ misconduct, the plaintiff’s reasonable diligence, or a satisfactory explanation for why the plaintiff was prevented from bringing suit against the correct defendants, the Court found that equitable tolling was inappropriate so as to prevent the suit from being dismissed based upon the expiration of the statute of limitations.

The plaintiff also made the argument that the new complaint should “relate back” to the date that the original suit was filed. However, the plaintiff cited to no legal authority for his claim that his second complaint can relate back to the pleadings filed against different parties in a different lawsuit. Both New Jersey state law and federal law only permit the relation-back rule to apply to amended pleadings (which would permit an amended complaint to relate back to the original filing date so as to be within the statute of limitations).

Hence, the Court upheld the trial court’s dismissal of this lawsuit based upon the statute of limitations.

This case demonstrates that there are certain limited circumstances in which a lawsuit filed after the expiration of the statute of limitations can be deemed timely filed. However, as recited by the Third Circuit in this case, tolling of the limitations period will be applied sparingly and only if the plaintiff can meet one of the specific criteria to justify equitable tolling.

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About the Author

About the Author:

Ms. Ramos is an Executive Committee Member and Co-Chair of the Litigation Department at Capehart Scatchard, P.A. located in Mount Laurel, New Jersey. She is an experienced litigator with over 25 years experience handling diverse matters. Practice areas include tort defense, business litigation, estate litigation, tort claims and civil rights defense, construction litigation, insurance coverage, employment litigation, shareholder disputes, and general litigation.

For the years 2020 and 2021, Ms. Ramos was selected for inclusion in The Best Lawyers in America© in the practice area of Litigation - Insurance. The attorneys on this list are selected based upon the consensus opinion of leading lawyers about the professional abilities of their colleagues within the same geographical area and legal practice area. A complete description of The Best Lawyers in America© methodology can be viewed via their website at: https://www.bestlawyers.com/methodology.

In 2021, Capehart Scatchard and Ms. Ramos received the “Best Law Firm” ranking in the area of Litigation – Insurance (Metro, Tier 3) published by U.S. News & World Report and Best Lawyers®. Law firms included on the list are recognized for professional excellence with consistently impressive ratings from clients and peers. To be eligible for a ranking, a firm must have at least one attorney who has been included in the current edition of Best Lawyers in America, which recognizes the top five percent of practicing lawyers in the United States. Betsy Ramos (Litigation – Insurance) was recognized for this prestigious award in the 2021 edition. For a description of the “Best Law Firm” selection methodology please visit: https://bestlawfirms.usnews.com/methodology.aspx.

“Best Law Firms” is published by Best Lawyers in partnership with U.S. News & World Report. For a description of the selection methodology please visit: https://bestlawfirms.usnews.com/methodology.aspx.

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