Wrongful Death Claims: Georgia State Appellate Court Reminds Us that the Statute of Limitations Matters

Wrongful death matters are serious by all means and filing within the statute of limitations is crucial. Compensation for wrongful deaths is a right generally reserved for surviving family members who depended on the decedent’s contributions — financial and emotional — to the family. Generally, any surviving spouse, surviving child/children, and in some cases, surviving parents can pursue a wrongful death claim. That’s exactly what Faleshia C. Lathan of Charlton County, Georgia did. In February 2013, her husband, Robert Lathan had been experiencing abdominal pain, so he went to the emergency room at Charlton Memorial Hospital, which is no longer in operation. The ER doctor diagnosed gastritis and sent him home. The next day, he suffered cardiac arrest and returned to the hospital only to be transferred to another hospital, where he died seven days later.

Almost two years later, in January 2015, Lathan filed a wrongful death suit against the Hospital Authority. She notified a hospital board member but failed to appropriately serve notice to the Hospital Authority’s CEO or the clerk. Upon knowledge of her failure to properly serve the complaint on the proper parties, Mrs. Lathan voluntarily withdrew the suit. Nearly one year later, however, she tried to revive the suit. And that was one year too late.

In Georgia, the statute of limitations for wrongful death claims is generally two years. Who knows what the statistics are for persons who fail to file timely lawsuits, but just one complainant who deserves compensation is one failed lawsuit too many. So many victims of personal injuries and wrongful deaths do not realize how very strict the statute of limitations is. First, two years may seem like a lifetime, but it is not, especially in these kinds of situations where a month of grieving can make it feel as though only one week has passed. The two-year deadline will expire before you know it. Second, a judge will usually not sympathize with any excuse you give, no matter how unfair it seems. Judges have the paramount duty to follow the law, and sometimes that can seem unfair.

Lathan’s attorney tried to argue that the 2016 suit was a “revived version of the 2015 suit and that none of its claims could be time barred.” But the trial court found the 2015 suit to be invalid due to the improper notice. Because the 2015 suit was invalid, and the 2016 suit was outside the statute of limitations, her claim was barred. It was that simple. And just as tragic. This case involves some peculiarities of Georgia law involving how to serve entities and how that service interacts with a Statute of Limitations and the revival of an action. It is a fairly complicated issue.

The lawyers at Gautreaux Law are very careful to ascertain all applicable deadlines that may affect your case. We’re happy to talk with you at no charge to discuss your possible legal claim and give you our honest evaluation of your claim.