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Appeals Court Rejects Argument that Statute of Limitations Should Have Been Extended in Insurance Case

Opened law book on desk.jpgIn a strongly worded opinion, Maryland's Court of Special Appeals has rejected the notion of expanding the amount of time for filing a civil claim. Maryland courts will not recognize an exception to the Statute of Limitations without action from the legislature, the state's intermediate appellate court has declared in Samuel Antar et al v. The Mike Egan Insurance Agency, Inc. et al.

The statute of limitations is a law that determines the amount of time in which a legal action must be taken or else that right expires. Under the Maryland Code - the statutes of the state of Maryland - a civil action must be filed within three years unless another provision of state law provides a different time period. For example, the statute of limitations on most medical malpractice claims is five years (see the Medical Malpractice section of this website for a more in-depth discussion of the statute of limitations in medical malpractice claims).

Maryland courts are very strict when the statute of limitations is raised as a defense because judges want to remove stale claims from the court system. Stale claims cause problems for everyone. Witnesses die, memories fade, records are lost or destroyed and cases become far more difficult to administer. Thus, certain deadlines are established.

The court's latest ruling on extending the deadline for filing a lawsuit stemmed from the denial of an insurance claim. Samuel and Rose Antar and Solomon and Gloria Lewittman, owned a building at 321 North Howard Street in Baltimore. They obtained an insurance policy from the Mt. Vernon Fire Insurance Company on August 31, 2006 and another policy from the Mike Egan Insurance Agency, Inc. The building was destroyed by fire on July 13, 2007. Mt. Vernon denied the claim after a post-fire inspection revealed that the building lacked the smoke and heat detectors required under the terms of the policy.

The Antars and Lewittmans filed a lawsuit in the Pennsylvania court on February 4, 2008, alleging breach of contract against Mt. Vernon and negligence against the Mike Egan Agency. The court surmised that this was a trial tactic to take advantage of Pennsylvania's Bad Faith Statute. When the Pennsylvania filing proved to be unsuccessful, they filed suit in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City on May 8, 2011. The insurance companies asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit as time-barred under the Statute of Limitations. The trial court agreed and the case was dismissed with prejudice. A motion for reconsideration was denied and an appeal followed. When the case came before the Court of Special Appeals, the appeals court declared that the Antars and Lewittmans lost on both the facts and the law of the case.

Maryland's intermediate appellate court started its analysis by determining the date of the cause of action. The court noted that the parties in the lawsuit had agreed that the accrual date was no later than February 4, 2008. This meant, the court said, that the latest deadline for filing in Baltimore was February 4, 2011. The suit was filed in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City on May 8, 2011, which was three months and two weeks beyond the ordinary filing deadline, the court said.

The Antars and the Lewittmans contended, however, that the entire running of the limitations period in Maryland should have been tolled - suspended -- for the entire time the lawsuit was pending in Pennsylvania. "The appellants cite no authority for such an extreme a suspension of animation, one that would literally freeze time in its tracks," the court responded.

The court rejected their reliance on a Maryland case decided in 1966 case dealing with an exception to the statute of limitations. Although the case did carve out a small and narrow exception to the Statute of Limitations; because of extenuating circumstances, the case was unique, if not actually "aberrational," the court observed. And, the court noted, there are now two rules on the books that would have provided a different result. Thus, if an action is filed in a federal or state court within the limitations period under Maryland law and the court dismisses the case for lack of jurisdiction or declining to exercise jurisdiction, etc., then an action filed in a circuit court within 30 days after the order of dismissal is treated as timely filed in Maryland.

It is clear, the court said, that the remedy provided by Maryland law to a plaintiff whose case is delayed by having been filed in the wrong court is not a tolling of limitations for the total duration of the erroneous filing, but, rather a grace period of 30 days for any necessary refiling, the court said.

In this instance, the insureds failed to exhibit a "shred of diligence" in a timely refiling of the case in Baltimore, the court said. "In the present case, of course, there was no prophylactic filing of the appellants' claim in Maryland nor even a more leisurely filing of the claim in the months, or years, following the dismissal of the case in Philadelphia County. The appellants lose on the facts and they lose on the law," the court concluded.

The case is Samuel Antar, et al. v. The Mike Egan Insurance Agency, Inc., et al.

Baltimore, Md.-based Belsky, Weinberg & Horowitz has been fighting for the victims of negligence and personal injury for many years. Call us at 410-234-0100 or email us for a free consultation and let us help you.

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