If you are injured in a motorcycle accident, construction accident or fall in a grocery store, a personal injury claim can provide compensation for medical bills, lost income and other damages. However, there are many procedural and legal requirements/potential pitfalls/complications that can derail a personal injury claim or lawsuit. If a plaintiff is suing a public entity, for example, failure to comply with time deadlines in an applicable tort claims act can result in a permanent bar to seeking legal action against the government. A plaintiff that allows the statute of limitations to run (i.e. expire) before filing a lawsuit typically will be barred from bringing a lawsuit against any potential parties.
While the consequences of failing to meet legal deadlines for civil litigation can be extremely harsh, the technical rules that can impact these timing requirements can make it easy for an unrepresented party to make a mistake. A recent Georgia Court of Appeals case, Callaway v. Goodwin, (Ga. Ct. of App. 2014) provides an example of the complexity and potential impact of these types of deadlines.
In Callaway, the plaintiff was injured in a car accident allegedly caused by Goodwin. Callaway filed a lawsuit on August 7, 2012 three days before the expiration of the statute of limitations, but the sheriff’s office did not serve the summons and complaint on Goodwin until August 22, 2012. Goodwin filed a motion to have the case dismissed because the complaint and summons were not served within the limitations period or the five day grace period, and Callaway failed to exercise reasonable diligence to effect timely service. The trial court granted the Goodwin’s motion to dismiss the case, and Callaway appealed.
The appellate court outlined the applicable legal rule as follows: “When a complaint is filed within the statute of limitations, but service is not made within five days or within the period of limitation, the plaintiff must establish that service was made in a reasonable and diligent manner in an attempt to ensure that proper serve is made as quickly as possible.” OCGA Section 9-11-4(c).
The appellate court observed that Callaway filed a properly addressed summons and tendered the service fee at the time the complaint was filed. Goodwin claimed that the filing fee had been paid, but the service fee was not paid, so Callaway failed to exercise due diligence. In response to this contention, Callaway presented the trial court with a check made out to the sheriff’s office and dated July 31, 2012. A copy of the bank statement for the attorney representing Callaway was also provided, which indicated that the check cleared on August 30, 2012.
Based on this evidence, the appellate court reversed the trial court, and the lawsuit was reinstated. The court indicated that when a plaintiff uses the sheriff’s office for service and provides a properly addressed summons, the plaintiff may rely on the sheriff’s office to perfect service in a timely fashion. The court implied the situation might be different if there was some basis to think there was a problem, but Callaway had no reason to suspect that such a problem existed.
There are several takeaways from this case. First, the consequence of missing a legal deadline can be permanent dismissal of your case or other serious damage to your legal claim. Second, sometimes determining deadlines in legal cases can be complicated and confusing, so plaintiffs should seek legal representation to avoid making a devastating mistake. Third, an injury victim should never wait until the last minute to retain an attorney. Given the complexity and importance of procedural and timing requirements when pursing a legal claim, plaintiffs should never procrastinate in seeking legal advice.
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