Lawyers are often asked how much time a client has to file a claim or how much longer the client has to wait before a threatened lawsuit goes stale. That seems like a simple question, but as so often happens in the law, appearances can be deceiving.
In Indiana, most injury claims must be brought in two years; certain contract claims can be filed up to ten years later; and most warranty-related claims have a four-year statute of limitations. But sometimes Indiana law does not apply. (Michigan has similar, but slightly different, time periods). Claims involving government entities usually have special rules. And sometimes the Indiana rule applies but does not tell you the whole story. For example, an employment-related claim under Indiana law must be filed within two years, but many federal employment claims must be pursued with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commissions within 300 days, and in some cases, even shorter periods apply. And all of these different rules have exceptions.
I was reminded of this complexity hiding beneath the surface of statutes of limitations when I read about a case decided in the Indiana Court of Appeals this summer. In Whitlock v. Steel Dynamics, Inc., the court ruled on the type of evidence necessary to prove the “disability” exception to the statute of limitations. A man who was struck by a crane did not file suit until eight days after the two-year statute of limitations had run. He argued he was “disabled” because of the injury and should be entitled to a longer time period. His wife and mother-in-law both provided affidavits supporting his argument. The trial court was not convinced, and it dismissed his case. The Court of Appeals agreed, explaining that the “conclusory opinions” of his family were not enough to take the case to trial. Mr. Whitlock sought further review from the Indiana Supreme Court, which declined to hear his case this September.
When you read the entire case—including details about Whitlock’s capabilities right after the accident—this seems like the right result. But it was not obvious. One judge dissented, arguing that a jury should have to decide whether or not Whitlock was disabled. And in fact, the Whitlock decision could be read as conflicting with recent Indiana Supreme Court authorities commenting on the importance of the jury system and warning judges about when it is proper to summarily decide cases. The Whitlock ruling very likely has implications in other areas of law beyond just statutes of limitation, especially now that the state Supreme Court has declined to review the decision. And just think about this in practical terms. The accident in that case occurred in April 2011, but there was no definitive answer on how to apply the statute of limitations until four-and-a-half years later when the Indiana Supreme Court decided (and after both sides spent a lot on legal fees).
I suspect the parties going into the Whitlock case did not realize it would be so complicated to find a definitive answer. At Tuesley Hall Konopa, we work to stay abreast of these nuances and intricacies so that we can provide our clients with the advice they need. Sometimes, that means we can’t give you a simple answer to what seems like a simple question. Anyone with a search engine can look up a statute of limitations. But the next time you need to know how a legal time limit affects your rights, make sure you consult with an attorney who will take the time to analyze all the circumstances.
Disclaimer: The THK Legal Blog is for informational purposes only and should not be relied upon as legal advice. In no case does the published material constitute an exhaustive legal study, and applicability to a particular situation depends upon investigation of specific facts. You should consult an attorney for advice regarding your individual situation.