In Sulca, another uninsured-motorist case, a driver caused an automobile accident and, before leaving the accident scene, told the "insured that he did not have automobile insurance and he did not own the car he was driving."Summary of this case from Jones v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co.
August 14, 2003.
City and County of Denver District Court No. 01CV2370; Honorable Larry J. Naves, Judge.
Ledbetter Thomas, P.C., Scott C. Thomas, Greenwood Village, Colorado, for Plaintiff-Appellant
Walberg, Dagner Tucker, P.C., Deana R. Dagner, Wendelyn K. Walberg, Englewood, Colorado, for Defendant-Appellee
In this action to recover uninsured motorist benefits, plaintiff, Julio C. Sulca (insured), appeals from the trial court's summary judgment in favor of defendant, Allstate Insurance Company (insurer), determining that the action was barred by § 13-80-107.5(1)(a), C.R.S. 2002, the applicable statute of limitations. We affirm.
In May 1996, insured was involved in an automobile accident with another vehicle. At the scene of the accident, the other driver advised insured that he did not have automobile insurance and he did not own the car he was driving. The driver then left the scene. At that time, insured had uninsured and underinsured motorist (UIM) coverages through insurer.
Three years later, in May 1999, insured timely sued the driver for personal injury and property damage resulting from the accident. No discovery was undertaken in that case.
Two years later, in 2001, insured commenced this action against insurer for UIM benefits. Insurer filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the case was untimely filed and should be dismissed. The trial court granted the motion.
On appeal, insured contends that the trial court erred in determining that his claim was barred under § 13-80-107.5(1)(a). We disagree.
Our review of the trial court's order granting a motion for summary judgment is de novo. See Aspen Wilderness Workshop, Inc. v. Colo. Water Conservation Bd., 901 P.2d 1251 (Colo. 1995).
Summary judgment is proper only "if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." C.R.C.P. 56(c). Summary judgment is appropriate when there is no doubt concerning material facts. See Roderick v. City of Colorado Springs, 193 Colo. 104, 563 P.2d 3 (1977). All doubts as to the existence of an issue of material fact must be resolved against the moving party. See Ridgeway v. Kiowa Sch. Dist. C-2, 794 P.2d 1020 (Colo.App. 1989).
The purposes of statutes of limitations are to promote justice, discourage unnecessary delay, and preclude the prosecution of stale claims. See Colo. State Bd. of Med. Exam'rs v. Jorgensen, 198 Colo. 275, 599 P.2d 869 (1979).
The interpretation of when a claim accrues under a statute of limitations is an issue of law. Middelkamp v. Bessemer Irr. Ditch Co., 46 Colo. 102, 103 P. 280 (1909). Whether the statute of limitations bars a particular claim is usually a fact question, see Keller Cattle Co. v. Allison, 55 P.3d 257 (Colo.App. 2002), but if the undisputed facts clearly show that the plaintiff had, or should have had the requisite information as of a particular date, the issue may be decided as a matter of law. See Winkler v. Rocky Mountain Conference of United Methodist Church, 923 P.2d 152 (Colo.App. 1995).
If statutes are clear and unambiguous, they require no construction and are to be applied as written. Holliday v. Bestop, Inc., 23 P.3d 700 (Colo. 2001). The purpose of statutory construction is to determine and give effect to the intent of the General Assembly, giving words their plain and commonly accepted meaning. Russell v. Pediatric Neurosurgery, P.C., 15 P.3d 288 (Colo.App. 2000), aff'd in part and rev'd in part, 44 P.3d 1063 (Colo. 2002). Any construction that would render any clause or provision unnecessary, contradictory, or insignificant should be avoided. Bowland v. Indus. Claim Appeals Office, 984 P.2d 660 (Colo.App. 1998), aff'd sub nom. United Airlines, Inc. v. Indus. Claim Appeals Office, 993 P.2d 1152 (Colo. 2000).
Section 13-80-107.5(1)(a) provides, in pertinent part, for two related periods of limitation as follows:
An action or arbitration of an "uninsured motorist" insurance claim . . . shall be commenced or demanded by arbitration demand within three years after the cause of action accrues; except that, if the underlying bodily injury liability claim against the uninsured motorist is preserved by commencing an action against the uninsured motorist within [three years], then an action or arbitration of an uninsured motorist claim shall be timely if such action is commenced or such arbitration is demanded within two years after the insured knows that the particular tortfeasor is not covered by any applicable insurance. In no event shall the insured have less than three years after the cause of action accrues within which to commence such action or demand arbitration.
As to accrual for purposes of the first three-year period of limitation, § 13-80-107.5(3), C.R.S. 2002, provides that: "An uninsured or underinsured motorist cause of action accrues after both the existence of the death, injury, or damage giving rise to the claim and the cause of the death, injury, or damage are known or should have been known by the exercise of reasonable diligence." The claim accrues for the purposes of the two-year period of limitation pursuant to § 13-80-107.5(1)(a), when the insured "knows that the particular tortfeasor is not covered by any applicable insurance." See also § 13-80-107.5(1)(b), C.R.S. 2002 (pertaining to underinsured motorists).
Thus, under the first clause of § 13-80-107.5(1)(a) and the accrual definition, an insured has three years from the date of the accident in which to sue the UIM carrier. Under the second clause, if the insured has brought an action against the tortfeasor within the three-year period of limitation for that action, and the insured only discovers that the tortfeasor is uninsured sometime after the accident, then the insured has at least two years from the date of that discovery in which to sue the UIM carrier. The interplay between these two clauses may, but does not necessarily, afford the insured more than three years from the date of the accident in which to sue the UIM carrier. However, if the insured has not timely commenced an action against the tortfeasor, three years after the accident he is time-barred from seeking relief against the UIM carrier, regardless of when he discovered that the other driver was uninsured.
Insured argues that the trial court erred in determining on summary judgment that his UIM claim was untimely because, according to insured, the period within which to sue his UIM carrier was not triggered under § 13-80-107.5(1)(a) until he had documented proof that no applicable policy insured the other driver. Until he obtained such proof, he contends, he did not "know" that the tortfeasor was uninsured. We disagree.
Dictionaries define "knowledge" as "an awareness or an understanding" and "actual knowledge" as "[an awareness or an understanding] of such information as would lead a reasonable person to inquire further." E.g., Black's Law Dictionary 876 (7th ed. 1999);Webster's Third New International Dictionary 1252 (1986) (defining "knowledge" as "the act, fact, or state of knowing; . . . awareness [or] understanding").
Most statutes of limitations require that a plaintiff know or, after the exercise of reasonable diligence, should have known of the triggering event or circumstance. See § 13-80-108, C.R.S. 2002; see also Miller v. Armstrong World Indus., Inc. , 817 P.2d 111 (Colo. 1991) (products liability); Fin. Assocs., Ltd. v. G.E. Johnson Constr. Co. , 723 P.2d 135 (Colo. 1986) (negligence or defects in improvements to real property);Colburn v. Kopit, 59 P.3d 295 (Colo.App. 2002) (breach of fiduciary duty or negligence); Stjernholm v. Life Ins. Co. , 782 P.2d 810 (Colo.App. 1989) (conversion based upon payment of instrument on forged endorsement).
The requirement that a plaintiff use due diligence in discovering the relevant circumstance or event imposes an objective standard and does not reward denial or self-induced ignorance. Therefore, we conclude that the limitation period in which to bring a claim against a UIM carrier under § 13-80-107.5(1)(a) commences to run when the insured knew or, in the exercise of reasonable diligence, should have known that there was no applicable insurance.
Here, insured brought an action against the tortfeasor within the three-year limitation period set forth in § 13-80-107.5. However, at the time of the accident insured also "knew" that there was no applicable insurance.
Insured argues that, because he timely commenced suit against the other driver, he had at least another two years to sue insurer even if he knew of the lack of applicable insurance prior to suing the other driver. According to insured, the three-year and two-year periods of limitation can only run consecutively, not concurrently. We are not persuaded.
Insured's interpretation would render the last sentence of § 13-80-107.5(1)(a), which establishes a minimum period of limitation of three years, meaningless. If the two-year and the three-year periods of limitation run concurrently because the insured knew that there was no applicable insurance during the three-year period, this last sentence would protect the insured by precluding the two-year period from, in effect, shortening the three-year period. However, if the periods of limitation only run consecutively, then either: (1) the last sentence would never pertain because the insured would always have the three-year period of limitation within which to act; or, (2) the two-year limit of the second period would be surplusage because that period would always be extended to three years by the application of the last sentence.
Accordingly, we conclude that insured had three years from the date he "knew" that there was no applicable insurance within which to commence this suit. Here that date was the day of the accident. Therefore, the trial court properly determined that his complaint, filed about five years after that date, was untimely.
The judgment is affirmed.
JUDGE WEBB concurs.
JUDGE ROY dissents.