Court says judge needs to decide when plaintiff became sane

By Steve Korris | Jun 15, 2007

CHARLESTON -- To extend the statute of limitations for a man who suffered temporary mental illness, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals stretched the words "at the same time" to mean a few days.

Four of five Justices reversed Raleigh Circuit Judge Robert Burnside, who in 2005 dismissed a personal injury suit of Michael Worley.

Burnside ruled that the statute of limitations ran out, but Worley argued on appeal that he was mentally ill part of the time.

The Justices agreed with Worley and sent the case back to Burnside.

Justice Spike Maynard delivered the opinion. Chief Justice Robin Davis and Justices Joseph Albright and Larry Starcher concurred. Justice Brent Benjamin dissented.

The majority did not order Burnside to keep the suit going. They told him to make a better decision about when Worley became sane.

Worley fell 30 feet to a concrete floor May 28, 2000, on a construction job for Beckley Mechanical and West Virginia Sprinkler. He suffered injuries but no brain trauma.

At Raleigh General Hospital, however, doctors perforated his liver while inserting a chest tube. He developed sepsis and his mental functions diminished.

He slowly recovered. The hospital released him July 10, 2000, 43 days after he fell.

On July 10, 2002, two years after his release, he sued Beckley Mechanical, West Virginia Sprinklers and three other companies.

Defendants argued that the statute of limitations ran out.

Worley relied on a 1923 law delaying the statute of limitations for a person who is "an infant or insane" at the time a cause of action accrues.

Burnside held a bench trial on whether Worley was insane. He ruled that Worley was not insane at the time the cause of action accrued.

"The evidence supports the conclusion that he was sane at that moment, and that he continued to be sane for a few days thereafter," Burnside wrote. "The evidence would present more difficulty if the question is whether he was insane on any given day following the date that the cause of action accrued.

"There may have been days that he was and days that he was not. But the statute does not work that way, and so that is not the question."

He found that Worley was sane from May 29 to June 3.

For Worley, Guy Bucci of Charleston and Pamela Lambert of Gilbert appealed. Kermit Moore of Bluefield represented Beckley Mechanical. Christopher Brumley, Nathaniel Tawney and Shannon Akers of Charleston represented West Virginia Sprinkler.

The Justices heard oral arguments March 13 and decided the case May 17.

The majority opinion substituted "mentally ill" for "insane."

"The plain meaning of the statutory language is that for mental illness to toll the statute of limitations, the mental illness must occur at the same time the person is injured," Maynard wrote, adding that the purpose of the law was to protect the legal rights of infants and the mentally ill.

"This purpose would be frustrated if the statute is literally read to protect only those persons who were mentally ill at the time of injury or who became mentally ill at the same time the injury occurred," Maynard wrote. "Such a construction would leave completely unprotected from the running of the statute of limitations those who, because of the defendant's conduct, become mentally ill within minutes, hours, or a few days after the injury.

"A strained literal application of the statute's language potentially excludes from protection many persons that the statute was intended to protect."

Maynard also wrote that to delay the statute of limitations a plaintiff must prove that the interval between the tortuous act and the mental illness was so brief that the plaintiff could not reasonably take steps to enforce his legal rights.

"We find clear error in the court's finding that Mr. Worley remained sane from May 29 through June 3," he wrote. "The evidence reveals that on May 29, Mr. Worley was in pain and being treated with morphine.

"Due to these circumstances, we believe that it would be unreasonable to expect Mr. Worley to initiate the enforcement of his legal rights on May 29."

He wrote that Worley's mental condition began to deteriorate on May 30.

"The interval between Mr. Worley's injury and the resulting mental incompetence was so brief that Mr. Worley could not have reasonably taken steps to enforce his legal rights during that period," Maynard wrote.

He told Burnside to determine when Worley became sane.

"Once the circuit court makes this finding, it can then make the ultimate determination whether the appellants filed their complaint within two years of the time that Mr. Worley regained his sanity," Maynard wrote.

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