648 S.E.2d 620
2. The plain meaning of a statute is normally controlling, except in the rare case in which literal application of a statute will produce a result demonstrably at odds with the intentions of the drafters. In such case, it is the legislative intent, rather than the strict language, that controls.
3. The general purpose of W.Va. Code § 55-2-15 (1923) is to toll the commencement of the running of the statute of limitations so that the legal rights of infants and the mentally ill may be protected.
4. In order for mental illness to toll the commencement of the running of the statute of limitations pursuant to W.Va. Code § 55-2-15 (1923), the plaintiff must show that the interval between the tortious act and the resulting mental illness was so brief that the plaintiff, acting with diligence, could not reasonably have taken steps to enforce his or her legal rights during such interval.
5. The ultimate purpose of statutes of limitations is to require the
institution of a cause of action within a reasonable time. Syllabus Point 2, Perdue v. Hess, 199 W.Va. 299, 484 S.E.2d 182 (1997).
The Appellants, Michael and Cynthia Worley, appeal the December 13, 2005, order of the Circuit Court of Raleigh County that dismissed with prejudice their complaint based on the court's finding that the complaint was not filed within the applicable statute of limitations. For the reasons set forth below, we reverse the circuit court's order and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
If any person to whom the right accrues to bring any such personal
action, suit or scire facias, or any such bill to repeal a grant, shall be, at the
time the same accrues, an infant or insane, the same may be brought within the
like number of years after his becoming of full age or sane that is allowed to
a person having no such impediment to bring the same after the right accrues,
or after such acknowledgment as is mentioned in section eight [§ 55-2-8] of
this article, except that it shall in no case be brought after twenty years from
the time when the right accrues.
After hearing the evidence and considering the arguments of the parties, the circuit court ruled that Mr. Worley was not insane at the time the cause of action accrued so as to toll the statute of limitations. Specifically, the court reasoned:
It must be noted, however, that the running of the statute of limitations is
suspended if he is insane at the time the [cause of action] accrues. . . .
The statute does not provide for the situation where a person is sane at the moment the cause of action accrues but becomes insane afterward. The sole question presented by the statue (sic) is whether he was insane at the time the cause of action accrues. The evidence supports the conclusion that he was sane at that moment, and that he continued to be sane for a few days thereafter. 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.
There is no claim that the Plaintiff was insane immediately prior to or
at the time of the injury. This question of fact focuses on the time immediately
following the injury. It is Plaintiff's contention that he was instantly rendered
insane by the injury, and that he did not recover from that insanity, for the
purposes of the statute of limitation, until his discharge from the hospital on
July 10, 2000. If he was instantly rendered insane by the injury, the onset of
insanity would be simultaneous with the injurious event. . . .
In the present matter, however, it is the court's finding of fact, upon the evidence summarized herein, that the Plaintiff was not insane at the moment of injury, nor was he instantly rendered insane by the injury, nor did he become insane immediately thereafter. (Emphasis in original).
Because the circuit court found that the Appellant was not under a disability that tolled the statute of limitations, the court dismissed the Appellants' complaint as untimely filed. The Appellants now appeal that ruling. (See footnote 3)
[t]he plain meaning of a statute is normally controlling, except in the rare case
in which literal application of a statute will produce a result demonstrably at
odds with the intentions of the drafters. In such case, it is the legislative intent,
rather than the strict language, that controls. West Virginia Human Rights
Comm'n v. Garretson, 196 W.Va. 118, 128, 468 S.E.2d 733, 743 (1996). Keatley v. Mercer County Bd. of Educ., 200 W.Va. 487, 492 n. 7, 490 S.E.2d
306, 311 n. 7 (1997).
Fitzgerald v. Fitzgerald, 219 W.Va. 774, ___, 639 S.E.2d 866, 876 (2006). After carefully weighing the policy of W.Va. Code § 55-2-15 in conjunction with a literal application of its language, we find that the legislative intent in drafting the statute should control. The general purpose of W.Va. Code § 55-2-15 (1923) is to toll the commencement of the running of the statute of limitations so that the legal rights of infants and the mentally ill may be protected. See Whitlow v. Bd. of Educ. of Kanawha Cty., 190 W.Va. 223, 231, 438 S.E.2d 15, 23 (1993) (The general tolling statute in W.Va. Code, 55-2-15 . . . is designed to extend the tolling period so that the rights of infants may be protected.). 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. 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. The fact is, however, that in many cases, including the instant one, those who become mentally ill a short time after their causes of action accrued are, as a practical matter, just as incapable of asserting their rights prior to their mental illness as those who were mentally ill or who became mentally ill at the same time their injuries occurred. Such persons are equally in need of the protection afforded by W.Va. Code § 55-2-15. In sum, we find that a strained literal application of the statute's language potentially excludes from protection many persons that the statute was intended to protect.
In his concurring opinion in Kyle v. Green Acres at Verona, Inc., 44 N.J. 100, 207 A.2d 513, 521 (1965), Judge Proctor stated I think the proper rule should be: If the interval between the tort and the resulting insanity is so brief that plaintiff, acting with diligence, cannot take preliminary steps to enforce his legal rights, then the defendant is estopped from asserting that the statute of limitations has commenced to run. (See footnote 6) (Citation omitted). Judge Proctor's reasoning is both persuasive and fair and should be the rule in West Virginia. Therefore, we now hold that in order for mental illness to toll the commencement of the running of the statute of limitations pursuant to W.Va. Code § 55-2-15 (1923), the plaintiff must show (See footnote 7) that the interval between the tortious act and the resulting mental illness was so brief that the plaintiff, acting with diligence, could not reasonably have taken steps to enforce his or her legal rights during such interval. To hold otherwise simply would deny the protection of the law to some of the weakest and most vulnerable people who, because they are unwilling victims of a terrible illness, are temporarily incapable of asserting their rights in court.
This Court previously has held that [t]he ultimate purpose of statutes of
limitations is to require the institution of a cause of action within a reasonable time.
Syllabus Point 2, Perdue v. Hess, 199 W.Va. 299, 484 S.E.2d 182 (1997). By providing
meaningful legal protection to the mentally ill, we are confident that our holding follows the
intent of the Legislature in drafting the exceptions to the statute of limitations in W.Va. Code
§ 55-2-15. At the same time, we are equally convinced that our holding is sufficiently
narrow to ensure that in cases of mental illness causes of action will be instituted within a
Having stated the applicable rule, we now must determine whether it applies to Mr. Worley so as to toll the commencement of the running of the statute of limitations under the facts of this case. The circuit court found that Mr. Worley was sane from May 28, the day of his injury, through June 3. The court based this finding of fact on nursing notes that consistently reported during this time that Mr. Worley was alert, oriented, and cooperative. We find that the circuit court did not err in finding that Mr. Worley was sane on May 28 and May 29. However, we find clear error in the court's finding that Mr. Worley remained sane from May 29 through June 3.
This Court's review of the evidence presented below indicates that Dr. Russell I. Voltin, the Appellees' expert, testified that while there is no objective evidence of mental illness on May 28 and May 29, [f]rom . . . May 30th through June 28th, it is likely that [Mr. Worley] was experiencing significant sequelae from his fall that would have impacted on his ability to appreciate his situation. On cross-examination, Dr. Voltin reiterated his position that on May 30, Mr. Worley was at least of significantly impaired capacity to maintain acceptable levels of functioning in areas of intellect, emotion, and physical well-being. Based on this credible evidence of record, we find that Mr. Worley's mental illness began approximately on May 30 rather than on June 3.
Thus, we find from the evidence that Mr. Worley was sane on May 28, the day of his injury, and the following day. If we discount the day of injury, which was a Sunday, as a day on which Mr. Worley could have asserted his legal rights, we are left with May 29. 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. As noted above, Mr. Worley's mental condition began to deteriorate on May 30. Therefore, we conclude from the evidence that the interval between Mr. Worley's injury and the resulting mental incompetence was so brief that Mr. Worley could not reasonably have taken steps to enforce his legal rights during that period. Accordingly, we find that the circuit court erred in finding that Mr. Worley's mental illness did not toll the commencement of the statute of limitations.
In its memorandum order, the circuit court found that Mr. Worley's level of
mental functioning continually changed during his course of treatment between June 4, 2000,
and his release from the hospital on July 10, 2000. However, the court did not make a
finding as to when Mr. Worley became sane under W.Va. Code § 55-2-15. The statute
provides that the statute of limitations commences to run after the insane person becomes
sane. Therefore, it is necessary to remand this case to the circuit court for a determination
of when Mr. 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.
Reversed and remanded.