Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.
Roe v. Diefendorf, 236 Kan. 218, 689 P.2d 855 (1984).
This case addresses the following issue:
When does the statute of limitations (time limit for filing a case) begin?
In this case, the court was required to determine when Kansas’s two-year statute of limitations for negligence claims begins to run. Id. at 220. The court determined that the statute of limitations begins to run when knowledge of the injury and negligent act are both known or reasonably should have been known, even if the extent of the injury is not fully known. Id. at 222. Thus, as soon as a party knows of a negligent act by the defendant and that some form of injury has occurred, the two-year time limit begins to tick. Id.
The plaintiff in this case was struck while riding his motorcycle in late 1979. Id. at 219. Plaintiff knew that he was bumped and bruised, but otherwise thought he was alright following the collision. Id. However, after suffering another injury in 1981, a doctor treating plaintiff notified him of a significant back injury from a prior occurrence. Id. At that point, it was relatively easy for plaintiff and his doctors to trace the lumbar injury to the 1979 accident. Id. However, it was more than two years after that accident. Id. The plaintiff filed the claim in court, and the defendant attempted to dismiss the case because it was not filed within the two-year statute of limitations. Id. The trial court found that the statute didn’t begin to run until 1981, when plaintiff discovered his back injury. Id. The defendant appealed. Id.
The court started by looking to the language of the statue, which states the time limitation begins to run when “the act giving rise to the cause of action first causes substantial injury.” Id. at 220. The term “substantial injury” was the main source of disagreement, with each side disagreeing about what “substantial” meant. Id. The court looked to its past decisions involving the statute for guidance, noting that the usual standard is “the date the cause of action accrues,” meaning the date the injury occurs. Id. at 221. The question in this case, as the court saw it, was whether “a party injured by a negligent act of another [must] have knowledge of the extent of the injury for the statute of limitations to commence running.” Id.
The court ultimately found that “substantial injury” only meant “actionable injury,” and did not require the plaintiff “to have knowledge of the full extent of the injury.” Id. at 222. Instead, the plaintiff only needs to know that he or she has some type of injury. Id. In this case, the plaintiff knew he was hurt—to some degree—on the date of the accident itself. Id. He may have thought he only suffered bumps and bruises, but that was enough to put him on notice that he needed a more thorough examination. Id. By failing to act until years later, he did not obey the statute of limitations and thus could not recover for the negligent acts of the defendant. Id. at 223.