A recent case illustrates the importance of vigilance in pursuing rights. Unfortunately, because the plaintiff didn’t take sufficient steps to find out if something had been done to her, she lost her suit before she found out something needed to be done.
All states have statutes of limitations to close off the right to file lawsuits after specified times. The primary reasons for this are to allow people to rest assured that they won’t have something from decades ago come back to bother them, and to discourage plaintiffs from waiting for witnesses to forget what they know, or to become unavailable.
In both Oregon and Washington, most suits other than to recover land have to be started within one to six years from the time the claim accrues, depending on the nature of the claim. In a case decided on August 8, 2012, the Oregon Court of Appeals stated that when a claim involves the wrongful taking of personal property, the claim accrues when the property is taken, even if the plaintiff doesn’t know about it.
Because the case was decided on whether the case should even be in court in the first place, the court assumed that the plaintiff’s complaint was true. The plaintiff, Joan Rice, alleged that in the 1960’s, she and her husband lent a costume worn by Rice’s mother-in-law at the 1930 Pendleton Round-Up to the Round-Up’s Hall of Fame, where it was displayed until 2000. Rice inherited the costume from her husband in 1972, and continued the loan. Rice alleged that in 2000, a relative, Mary Rabb, retrieved the costume from the Hall of Fame without telling her. Rice did not learn of the taking of the costume until 2007, and she sued for its return, or for damages, in 2009.
In Oregon, the statute of limitations for taking personal property is six years. The question was whether the six years began in 2000, when Rabb allegedly took the costume, or in 2007, when Rice learned about it.
The Oregon legislature sometimes expressly says that a statute of limitations begins when the claim is discovered or should be discovered. An example is the statute of limitations covering suits for fraud. The courts have also ruled that the same “discovery” rule applies to some other statutes of limitations by interpretation of the word “accrues.” The most significant is the statute for most tort claims, including negligence. The courts have not, however, held that all claims accrue when they are discovered. (Although it didn’t matter in this case, there are also statutes that require some claims to be brought within ten or more years from the date of the wrongful act, regardless of discovery.)
Although it might seem reasonable that a claim for improper taking of personal property might accrue when the owner knows or should know of the taking – and that in many cases that would be shortly after it happens – the court disagreed. In previous cases, the courts had ruled that the taking itself was the event that started the clock running, unless the defendant had fraudulently concealed the taking. The court chose to follow these precedents.
Washington courts have been more willing to apply the “discovery” approach than Oregon when presented with a category of cases that might be hard to discover within the time frame, but unless the courts have specifically ruled on a particular situation, it is hard to predict which way the court will rule. For this reason, in both Oregon and Washington, if anyone thinks something wrong was done to them, and discovers it more than a few months after the fact, they probably should consult a lawyer to determine not only if they have a good case, but if the statute of limitations may have expired. They also should be ready to give the lawyer all of the information necessary to decide when they should have found out about the problem, so that the lawyer can make a reasonable determination of when the discovery should have been made.