Under Florida law, a plaintiff has four years to bring a suit for negligence. See Fla. Stat. § 95.11. Although the waters surrounding our state play host to a number of accidents, many potential litigants are surprised to learn that the Florida legal rules, including the aforementioned statute of limitations, are often not those that govern disputes that arise on the seas. Instead, maritime law controls many of these cases, and potential litigants should be aware of the implications that these differing legal rules may have for their lawsuits. For instance, these differences were at the heart of a recent decision from Florida’s First District Court of Appeal, Lupola v. Lupola, which concerned the differing statutes of limitations for negligence under maritime and Florida law.
The incident at issue in this case occurred in July 2010. The plaintiff and her husband were on a raft that was being pulled by a boat operated by her father-in -law. At one point during the trip, the raft went airborne and then hit the water with enough force to eject the plaintiff and her husband from the raft. Both the plaintiff and her husband were injured and received medical treatment the same day. A little less than four years later, the plaintiff filed suit against her father-in-law and the manufacturer of the raft, BRP US, Inc., alleging negligence against the former and products liability against the latter. Following discovery, the defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing that since the incident occurred on a waterway, it was subject to the statute of limitations for negligence under maritime law, which is set at three years rather than four years, as under Florida law. See 46 U.S.C. § 30106 (“Except as otherwise provided by law, a civil action for damages for personal injury or death arising out of a maritime tort must be brought within [three] years after the cause of action arose.”) The plaintiff conceded that maritime law applied but argued that her claim was subject to equitable tolling because her husband’s domineering attitude prevented her from seeking legal advice for some time after the accident. The trial court granted the defendants’ motion, finding that the plaintiff had not shown the grounds for equitable tolling, and therefore the action was time-barred. The plaintiff then appealed to the First District.
To the plaintiff’s chagrin, however, the First District sided with the defendant and affirmed the trial court’s ruling. Indeed, it is a well-settled proposition that statutes of limitations for personal injury cases run from the occurrence of the injury and not from when the plaintiff has knowledge that the conduct may violate the law. See, e.g., White v. Mercury Marine, Division of Brunswick, Inc., 129 F.3d 1428, 1433-34 (11th Cir. 1997). Accordingly, the plaintiff’s argument that she did not understand that her father-in-law’s conduct may have constituted negligence until a later date was without import. Furthermore, equitable tolling generally only applies when “the plaintiff has been misled or lulled into inaction, has in some extraordinary way been prevented from asserting his rights, or has timely asserted his rights mistakenly in the wrong forum.” Machules v. Dep’t of Admin., 523 So. 2d 1132, 1134 (Fla. 1988). Importantly, “equitable tolling . . . does not require active deception or [defendant] misconduct, but focuses . . . on the [plaintiff] with a reasonably prudent regard for his rights.” Id.
Although equitable tolling focuses on the reasonableness of the plaintiff’s actions, the First District noted that a plaintiff must still show conduct that reasonably prevented her from filing her claim, not discovering her claim. See White, 129 F.3d at 1433. In this case, the plaintiff only alleged that her husband’s conduct prevented her from taking action to discover that she had a cause of action, not that her husband prevented her from filing suit. Since the plaintiff was aware of her injury and was not prevented from taking legal action to redress that injury, the First District determined that there were no grounds justifying the application of equitable tolling. Therefore, the Court determined that the negligence claim was time-barred and affirmed the judgment of the trial court.
Even though the plaintiff’s argument regarding her husband’s influence may have had some merit, the discussion would have been unnecessary had the plaintiff filed her complaint in a timely manner. Indeed, those who have been injured and believe they may have a viable claim should considering taking prompt legal action and seeking the advice of experienced counsel who can determine what body of law applies to their claims. The South Florida boating accident attorneys at Frankl and Kominsky have represented numerous injured Floridians in both state and federal court and have substantial experience in the wide range of different laws that arise in personal injury litigation. If you’ve recently been injured and are curious about your options for recovery, feel free to contact us for a free case consultation.