Equitable Estoppel: Janvier v. Greyhound

Kopec Law Firm

Sometimes, the lawyers to a claim may try to negotiate a settlement before the plaintiff files in court. Suppose the plaintiff chooses not to file during the negotiations. In that case, the plaintiff must ensure that the statute of limitations does not expire. A recent Maryland case discusses this situation and the plaintiff’s attempt to avoid expiration by claiming equitable estoppel. Although the case involved a bus accident, it also has applications to medical malpractice cases. I will discuss the case and then provide some commentary for Maryland medical malpractice lawyers.

Facts

On November 27, 2023, the Appellate Court of Maryland issued an unreported opinion in Janvier v. Greyhound Lines, Inc. The plaintiffs were passengers on a Greyhound bus that crashed in May of 2019. They filed suit on August 5, 2022. Greyhound moved to dismiss the complaint because plaintiffs filed it after the three-year statute of limitations. The trial court dismissed the complaint. (Op. at 2).

The plaintiffs argued that equitable estoppel precluded a statute of limitations defense. They argued that they had given a notice to arbitrate to Greyhound. Plaintiffs mistakenly believed that they had to arbitrate and relied on the fact that Greyhound did not say anything to the contrary. Instead, the parties agreed to engage in settlement negotiations and exchanged information. The plaintiffs believed that their arbitration notice was sufficient for statute of limitations purposes and that they did not have to file in court. After the statute of limitations date passed, Greyhound terminated negotiations because the claims were time-barred. (Id. at 9-10).

Court Decision

The Court described equitable estoppel: It is the effect of the voluntary conduct of a party whereby he is absolutely precluded both at law and in equity, from asserting rights which might perhaps have otherwise existed, either of property, of contract, or of remedy, as against another person, who has on good faith relied upon such conduct, and has been led thereby to change his position for the worse and who on his part acquires some corresponding right, either of property, of contract, or of remedy. (Id. at 10-11).

The Court summarized the aspects of an equitable estoppel argument as “representation, reliance, and detriment.” A defendant may be equitably estopped from asserting a statute of limitations defense if it held out inducements not to file suit or indicated that it would not plead limitations. The representation must be an affirmative act or affirmative statement. Silence where there is no duty to speak does not create estoppel. (Id. at 11).

The Court observed that Greyhound did not represent that the claim was subject to arbitration and made no affirmative representation that plaintiffs did not need to file their complaint within limitations. Greyhound’s silence was not a basis for the application of equitable estoppel. The Court affirmed the dismissal of the case. (Id. at 13-14).

Commentary for Maryland Medical Malpractice Lawyers

As discussed in other posts on this Blog, the statute of limitations can be a minefield. In some cases, precisely calculating the statute of limitations can be challenging. The Janvier case addresses another situation – when the statute of limitations can be a trap for lawyers. However, it does not have to be.

If the defense suggests that the plaintiff not file suit or says it will not raise limitations, another tool for the Maryland medical malpractice lawyer is the tolling agreement. This agreement expressly suspends the statute of limitations for some time. With such an agreement, the plaintiff will not have to resort to equitable estoppel and will not be susceptible to the defense’s opposition to such an argument.

The need for a tolling agreement does not often arise in medical malpractice cases. In the vast majority of cases, the plaintiff proceeds with filing the complaint in court. However, there may be times when the defense would like an opportunity to explore a pre-suit settlement of the case. These negotiations usually happen when there is (1) a solid case of liability and (2) circumstances the defense would like to avoid having aired publicity or facing in court. In such a situation, if the statute of limitations is approaching, a tolling agreement may meet the needs of both parties.

You can also read another post on this blog about the statute of limitations.

Mark Kopec is a top-rated Maryland medical malpractice lawyer. You can contact us at 800-604-0704 for a free consultation. Thank you for reading the Maryland Medical Malpractice Lawyer Blog.

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