A “Stay” of a Federal Suit May Have Far-Reaching Impacts for Prescription Purposes

clock_time_time_indicating_19-scaledPersonal injury cases can often drag out for years in a confusing manner. This is especially true when there are disagreements about the proper venue and subject matter jurisdiction. A recent appeal discussed below tackles the challenges of dismissal of actions due to a lack of jurisdiction and the timing requirement of prescription.

This case arose out of a car accident in 2010 in Tangipahoa Parish. Plaintiffs initially filed in federal district court to recover damages for personal injuries, claiming the federal court had jurisdiction due to the diversity of citizenship between plaintiffs and defendants. Ms. Crowe, the defendant, had moved to dismiss due to her claim that she was a Louisiana resident at the time and, thus, diversity of citizenship did not exist. In 2011, the federal court denied Crowe’s motion. 

However, in 2012 a different federal district court dismissed the plaintiff’s complaint due to lack of jurisdiction. In the current lawsuit, heard in state court, the defendant argued the case was prescribed on its face because it was filed over two years after the accident, and no defendant was served with process within the applicable period. Eventually, this issue was decided in a pre-trial proceeding, and then evidence regarding prescription was excluded from the trial. The trial court found for the plaintiffs, and the defendants motioned for a new trial based on the claim the court erred in denying the exception of prescription. 

In Louisiana, a new trial will be ordered when the trial court is convinced, after examining the facts, the current judgment would be a miscarriage of justice. Pope v Roberts. The denial of a motion for a new trial is within the trial court’s judgment. Rao v Rao. In determining whether the denial of a motion for a new trial was in error, the appellate court had to examine the merits of the defendant’s prescription objection. 

A tort claim is subjective to a liberative prescription period of one year, which begins from the day of injury. La. Civ. Code 3492. An objection of prescription may be raised by peremptory exception, La Civ. Code P. art 927(A)(1), and must be decided based on the facts alleged in the petition, which must be accepted as true. Kirby v Field. Generally, courts construe against prescription and, in favor of the claim, sought to be dismissed. Bailey v Khoury. Prescription is interrupted when an action is filed in a competent court, but if an action is commenced in an incompetent court or venue, then prescription is only interrupted through service within the prescriptive period. La. Civ. Code 3462

The Court found no merit in the defendant’s argument for a prescription exception. The Court found it significant that the original motion to dismiss led to not a dismissal but an administrative stay pending the outcome of the state court proceeding. The appellate court decided that by staying the case, the federal court had maintained subject matter jurisdiction. The appeals court agreed with the trial court that until the federal court determined it lacked jurisdiction, then the federal suit interrupted prescription. 

Justice McDonald dissented. He further emphasized that filing an action in an incompetent court cannot lead to prescription being interrupted. Additionally, a court that does not have subject matter jurisdiction is not a competent court. Glasgow v PAR Minerals Corp. Further, subject matter jurisdiction is not discretional; it either exists or it does not. Printworks, Inc. v Dorn Co. Thus, McDonald concluded that since it was eventually decided the federal court did not have jurisdiction, then it was never a court of competent jurisdiction, and filing of the suit did not interrupt prescription. 

This case illustrates the confusing nature of timing in filing a claim. Plaintiffs must file within the statutory prescription period for their claim. A good attorney will ensure this requirement is met. 


Written by Berniard Law Firm Blog Writer: Elisabeth Tidwell

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