DeSela v. Prescott Unified School District (CA1 4/20/10)


The issue here is whether an assignment to a minor tolls the statute of limitations.

DeSela was injured at school in November 2004. Her mother assigned to her the mother’s claim for her medical expenses. (The validity of the assignment was not at issue but the court feels fidgety enough about it to explain in a footnote why such an assignment is valid.) DeSela then filed a timely notice of claim against the District. In December 2007 she filed suit for personal injury, having turned 18 a year before. The District argued that the claim for medical expenses was barred by the statute of limitations. The trial court agreed and dismissed it. (Whether “dismissal” of some damages – or “summary judgment,” as the Court of Appeals calls it – is actually either of those things is a question for another day.) This opinion reverses.

DeSela contended that when her mother assigned the claim to her it was then tolled because she was a minor. The District argued that the assignor stands in the shoes of the assignee and can’t get more than the assignor possessed. This argument, right or wrong, deserves better treatment than it gets at the hands of this opinion.

The court first says that some cases from other jurisdictions – which of course have different statutes – have allowed similar things.

It next cites a statute that might support either side and blows it off with one questionable sentence. An assignment does not affect an existing defense, 44-144. The statute doesn’t apply, says the court, because the District did not have a statute of limitations defense when the assignment was made. But the right not to be sued beyond the statute existed at the moment the accident happened. Does a defense not “exist” because it is contingent on what the claimant does? If that’s the law then explain why or cite a case, don’t just assume your conclusion.

The court next distinguishes several cases because none of them was a spotted horse.

Is the court sure of itself? Twelve footnotes in fourteen pages says “no,” as does the court’s final argument, that last refuge of all appellate courts: policy. Barring the claim “would serve no identifiable public purpose” since its easier for the plaintiff to sue this way, DeSela sent a timely notice of claim anyway, and the claim isn’t stale because the District knew about it. This does nothing but try to justify the court’s conclusion; the legal content is zero. Limitations statutes are not for ease of suing and are not nullified by notice, statutory or otherwise.

In a footnote, the court had addressed an issue the District raised for the first time at oral argument. Why address it? We don’t know; the reason the court gives is incomprehensible. In any event, a supervening disability does not affect the limitations period, 12-503. This does not apply, the court says, because DeSela did not have a supervening disability – she was a minor even before the assignment. But if you’re going to talk about policy, that announced by 12-503 is at least as clear and cogent as anything raised in this opinion.