Georgia Court of Appeals Reverses Dismissal of Motor Vehicle Accident Case

Although proving substantive claims already places a heavy burden on a plaintiff, procedural roadblocks often also arise to the chagrin of hapless litigants. In particular, issues related to proper service of process and initiation of the suit within the applicable statute of limitations period can hamper ill-advised plaintiffs with otherwise meritorious claims. A recent decision from the Georgia Court of Appeals, Callaway v. Goodwin, demonstrates the importance of these procedural requirements.
Callaway arose from a motor vehicle accident on August 10, 2010. In Georgia, the statute of limitations for bringing a personal injury action is two years. See Ga. Code Ann. § 9-3-33. In this case, the plaintiff did not file suit until August 7, 2012, only three days before the expiration of the statute of limitations. On that day, the plaintiff filed the complaint as well as a properly addressed summons for service on the defendant and a check for the service fee to obtain proper service through the Walton County Sheriff’s Office. However, the Sheriff’s office did not effectuate service of process on the defendant until August 22, 2010, 12 days following the expiration of the statute of limitations. Following receipt of the summons and complaint, the defendant moved for dismissal of the action, arguing that service of process was not perfected within the statute of limitations period and that the plaintiff otherwise failed to demonstrate diligence in perfecting service of process within the statutory period. The trial court granted the motion, and the plaintiff initiated this appeal.
Pursuant to Georgia law, “[w]hen a complaint is filed within the statute of limitation, but service is not made within five days or within the period of limitation, the plaintiff must establish that service was made in a reasonable and diligent manner in an attempt to ensure that proper service is made as quickly as possible.” Akuoko v. Martin, 298 Ga. App. 364-365 (1) (680 SE2d 471) (2009). Generally, the trial court has considerable discretion in determining whether a party has shown diligence to effect service of process, and an appeals court will only reverse a diligence determination if the trial’s court determination constitutes an abuse of discretion. Id. at 365. In reaching its conclusion to grant the motion to dismiss, the trial court erroneously found that the plaintiff had only paid the court filing fees and not the services of process fees when she filed her complaint and summons. However, evidence proffered by the plaintiff to both the trial court and on appeal showed that all applicable service and filing fees had been paid at the time of filing.

After rebutting the trial court determination, the Court of Appeals then noted that the trial court’s opinion failed to proffer any other evidence of a lack of diligence beyond the aforementioned erroneous finding of failure to pay the applicable fees. Although one could argue that the plaintiff should have checked with the Sheriff’s Office to ensure that there had been timely service, the Court of Appeals reaffirmed earlier state law precedent. This had held that when a plaintiff elects to effect service of process through use of the Sheriff’s Office and has provided the Sheriff with a properly addressed summons, reliance on the sheriff to effectuate service in a timely fashion is not, in isolation, a justification for finding a lack of diligence unless the plaintiff has received notice from the sheriff that there has been difficulty in effectuating service and fails to act on this notice. See Jackson v. Nguyen, 225 Ga. App. 599 (484 SE2d 337) (1997). Since the plaintiff in this case had not been informed of any issues regarding service of the summons and complaint, the court concluded that there was no basis for a finding of a lack of diligence.
Although the plaintiff in this case managed to avoid the legal pitfalls that can arise when procedural problems surface, these issues – including the costs associated with the appeal – could have ultimately been avoided had the plaintiff not delayed in bringing her case. Given that statutes of limitations are quite short for many causes of action, it is imperative for anyone considering bringing legal action for his or her injuries to get timely legal assistance from competent counsel. The Atlanta motor vehicle accident attorneys at the Law Office of Terrence R. Bethune have extensive motor vehicle litigation experience and can offer you guidance on the procedural and substantive issues your prospective case presents. Please feel free to contact us for a free case evaluation.

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