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United States Supreme Court Approves Equitable Tolling in Claims Against the Federal Government – U.S. v. Wong

Written April 29, 2015

Under the Constitution, the United States Supreme Court is the highest court in the land and the “end of the road” for American legal disputes. Even a minor traffic citation could theoretically be appealed all the way to the Supreme Court. However, the court has discretion as to whether or not to hear most cases, and it is very selective in determining which 80 or so cases it will decide out of the 10,000 or more petitions for writs of certiorari it receives in a given year. Seldom does a seemingly simple civil matter such as a car accident make its way all the way to the Supreme Court.

Recently, however, the Supreme Court decided to accept briefs and oral arguments in the consolidated cases of United States v. Wong and United States v. June. The issue presented dealt with an area with which personal injury victims and their attorneys are quite familiar but which rarely gets the attention of the highest court in the land:  the statute of limitations and the limited exceptions under which it can be tolled in a given case, in particular under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) requirement that claims against a particular governmental entity be filed within two years after a claim accrues and that suit must be filed in federal court within six months of an agency’s denial of a claim.

The Facts of the Cases

In the Wong case, the respondent was a woman who alleged that she had been falsely imprisoned by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) in 1999. She presented a claim to the INS within two years of her alleged wrongful imprisonment, and the INS denied her complaint. Thereafter, she moved for leave to amend an existing federal lawsuit to include a claim for false imprisonment. The district judge granted her leave to amend six months and three weeks after the INS’s denial of her complaint. Her claim was ultimately dismissed by the district court as time-barred. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, holding that equitable tolling prevented the dismissal of the woman’s suit.

In the June case, the respondent was a woman who filed a wrongful death action against the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) after her loved one was killed in a car accident due to a faulty barrier that the FHWA had allegedly approved for installation even though it had not been properly crash-tested. Her claim against the FHWA came some five years after the accident. The government moved for dismissal on the grounds that the claim was time-barred, and the woman responded that the statute of limitations was equitably tolled due to the government’s concealment of its failure to require crash-testing. The district court dismissed the woman’s case, but the Ninth Circuit reversed based on its holding in Wong.

The Decision of the United States Supreme Court

The Supreme Court granted certiorari in both cases, seeking to resolve a split between the circuits concerning whether the time limits set forth under the FTCA allow for equitable tolling. Upon consideration, the court agreed with the Ninth Circuit that they do.

In so holding, the court rejected the government’s contention that 28 U.S.C.A. §2401(b)’s time limits are jurisdictional. Instead, a claimant who misses one of the deadlines set forth by the FTCA may request equitable tolling, and a court may toll both of the FTCA’s limitations periods if the claimant shows a good reason for filing late.

To Talk to an Experienced New York Wrongful Death Lawyer

While the Supreme Court’s decision will be helpful to potential claimants who have a good excuse for failure to file a timely claim against the federal government, it is always best to consult an attorney about a potential wrongful death or other personal injury sooner rather than later. Equitable tolling is the exception rather than the rule, and the vast majority of lawsuits are dismissed if they are not timely filed. In addition, waiting to file suit often results in a weaker case due to fading memories of witnesses, the disappearance of physical evidence, and other obstacles caused by the passage of time. Don’t let this happen to you; call (516) 394-4200 today and ask for an appointment with a member of the Duffy & Duffy legal team. We handle cases in New York, the Bronx, and Queens.

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