From the desk of Kyle D. Riley: Under Washington law, the statute of limitations on a personal injury action is tolled when a Plaintiff is a minor. Once they reach the age of majority, they have three years to file a personal injury claim on the underlying accident. Washington law also gives the parents of a minor child a right of action against a tortfeasor in personal injury matters, subject to the same statute of limitations. While the statute of limitations is tolled for minors until they reach the age of majority, it is not similarly tolled for any claim that minor’s parents could have brought, as we learn here from the Washington Court of Appeals.
Case Pointer: Washington law gives minors who are injured some extra time to file claims against a tortfeasor. This functions by tolling RCW 4.16.080’s three-year statute of limitations on personal injury claims until the injured minor has reached the age of majority. RCW 4.16.190. Under RCW 4.24.010, parents also have a cause of action for injury to their child. In this case, parent and child both waited to file suits for damages arising out of an injury sustained by the child when she was a minor. Ultimately, the Court of Appeals had to determine whether the tolling arrangement of RCW 4.16.190 was person-specific, as opposed to generally applicable to a set of facts giving rise to a claim. Continue reading to see the Court’s reasoning.
Curtin v. City of East Wenatchee, 457 P.3d 470 (2020).
The injury underling this case arose from a December 2009 car accident in which Jennifer Curtin was struck by a vehicle while crossing a street in East Wenatchee, Washington. At the time, she was 14 years old. In February 2016, within three years of Jennifer Curtin’s birthday, she and her parents brought suit against the vehicle’s driver and the city of East Wenatchee. The trial court granted summary judgment as to both defendants on the grounds that the claims were untimely and outside the statute of limitations. The Court of Appeals took a second look at the issue and held that the claim was timely only as to Jennifer Curtin (Plaintiff and the directly-injured party) herself. Thus, the lower court ruling was reversed only in part.
At the outset, the Court of Appeals addressed the trial court’s ruling that Plaintiff lacked standing to assert a claim for her pre-majority medical expenses. It determined this was in error. Specifically, that ruling was premised upon a common law rule under which a minor’s parents held exclusive rights to recover a child’s medical expenses. However, the Washington Supreme Court has declined to follow that common law approach in the past, meaning that the right to recover pre-majority medical expenses lies with both the child and their parents. Of course, the Court noted that if a minor does recover certain expenses associated with an injury, their parents will not later be able to come to court and claim compensation for the same expenses.
The more critical question was whether the trial court had erred in denying Plaintiff’s parents the ability to join in their daughter’s lawsuit. Plaintiff’s parents believed the tolling provisions of RCW 4.16.190 applied not only to their daughter’s claim, but also to theirs. The Court of Appeals disagreed. The Court determined that the tolling provisions of that statute are “person specific” and apply only to people who meet the statute’s criteria. It does not apply to a parent who is not disabled or under the age of 18. With that in mind, the court determined that the three-year statute of limitations period applies to a parent’s claim for injuries to their child as of the date of injury. It is not subject to the same tolling period as the child’s claim. On these grounds, the Court of Appeals determined that the trial court did not err as to the claims of Plaintiff’s parents.
The Court explained that this holding is in line with the purpose of the three-year statute of limitations. It is not unreasonable to require a competent adult to take prompt action once they become aware of the basis for a legal claim. Ultimately, a competent parent or guardian who has failed to timely act cannot leverage RCW 4.16.190 to attach their otherwise untimely claim to that of a minor or disabled person’s claim.