The statute of limitations is almost as imbedded in Americans’ understanding of fundamental legal concepts as Miranda Rights and the Fifth Amendment privilege against self incrimination. Most everyone knows that, much like cartons of milk, legal claims have expiration dates.
The specifics of how rights become time barred aren’t always so clear. The notion of restricting a cause of action’s shelf life derives from a number of concerns: witness availability and memories become less reliable; long-term maintenance of documents and other evidence becomes burdensome; reduction of cases which can be introduced to crowded court dockets is always a priority; and don’t forget society’s interest in not having to worry about time-distant events (let us get on with our lives!). But while these interests are laudable, they aren’t uniform with respect to all varieties of legal claim. For example, some legal issues take longer to fully manifest themselves. Those whose rights are protected by a written contract are seen as deserving the benefit of longer time to file suit, as those rights are more clearly defined and less subject to the downsides of interests we’re trying to protect.
Thus, there isn’t a single statute of limitations, or a single statutory time period during which all lawsuits must be filed, for all legal claims. The time allowed varies by issue, statutory terms, field of law and state jurisdiction. There’s no statute of limitations that applies to all maritime claims, although federal statutes ascribe times to bring suit for certain varieties of claims, such as COGSA’s one year, and the three years allowed by the Uniform Statute of Limitations for Maritime Torts applicable to personal injury and death claims.
So what happens if there’s no statutory time during which a maritime claim may be brought? In those cases, courts sitting in admiralty turn to the equitable doctrine of laches (pronounced “latches”). When undertaking a laches analysis, courts basically ask whether an inexcusable delay in bringing suit has rendered the claim time barred in light of all equitable considerations and public policy.
Most courts go through a test of the circumstances in determining whether to toss out a claim based on laches. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana recently evaluated a delayed claim a vessel owner, Pacific Dawn, LLC, brought against New Orleans Marine Service (NOMS), which Pacific Dawn had hired (sans written contract) to oversee repairs that allegedly were insufficient. In a lawsuit it brought some three years later, Pacific Dawn sought to recover additional repair costs and a determination that it didn’t have to pay NOMS its fee.
The court asked: (1) did Pacific Dawn delay bringing the claim; (2) if so, was doing so excusable; and (3) did such delay cause NOMS any undue prejudice? To demonstrate laches and get the lawsuit tossed, NOMS’s burden was to show each question is answered “yes.”
The court agreed Pacific Dawn delayed bringing the claim. An analogous Louisiana state statute of limitations (which provides a “presumption” of delay) for this type claim was one year, and the plaintiff clearly knew about the circumstances it alleged in its complaint far longer than that before it filed. Was the delay excusable? No. Pacific Dawn never even gave notice to NOMS about its claims, and the notice it gave to the actual repair facility doesn’t count. A timely heads up to the defendant being at the heart of the issue, the court refused to disregard the delay as excusable.
But to what extent, if any, did NOMS suffer a disadvantage by Pacific Dawn’s inexcusable delay? NOMS’s president had been involved with Pacific Dawn’s concerns about the repairs from the outset, and had retained all pertinent records as a matter of normal practice. He even had photos. That was enough for the court to conclude that Pacific Dawn’s holdup in filing suit hadn’t prejudiced NOMS, at least not sufficiently to support a laches defense. NOMS’s motion to dismiss was denied accordingly.
This outcome notwithstanding, it probably wasn’t a great idea for Pacific Dawn to delay legal action (why it did so isn’t clear from the opinion). Courts are known to go in different directions in laches analyses, and you can never be sure how good a prospective defendant’s recordkeeping is. The best course is to pursue your rights diligently.
Ref: Pacific Dawn, LLC, et al. v. New Orleans Marine Service, Inc., et al., 2012 WL 686034 (E.D. La. 2012)
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