Elkins v. Derby

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (California)
Citation525 P.2d 81,12 Cal.3d 410,115 Cal.Rptr. 641
Decision Date22 August 1974
Parties, 525 P.2d 81, 71 A.L.R.3d 839 Orbie Dale ELKINS, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. Ted DERBY et al., Defendants and Respondents. L.A. 30195. In Bank

Donald W. Haynes and Haynes & Olpin, Arroyo Grande, for plaintiff and appellant.

Joe M. Agapay, Jr., Los Angeles, for defendants and respondents.

TOBRINER, Justice.

We confront in this case a matter of first impression concerning whether the statute of limitations on a plaintiff's personal injury action is tolled for the period during which he pursues his workmen's compensation remedy against defendant. In the instant case, the plaintiff, injured while working on defendants' premises, reasonably and in good faith filed a timely claim for benefits with the Workmen's Compensation Appeals Board. After several months of adjudication, the board decided that plaintiff had not been an 'employee' at the time of his injury because he had not received compensation for his services; the board thus concluded that plaintiff was not entitled to benefits. Shortly after the WCAB decision became final, plaintiff filed the present civil action seeking recovery for the same injuries which prompted his compensation claim. Because that action was not filed within a year of the injury, the superior court held it barred by the applicable statute of limitations.

Although defendants point out that plaintiff could have preserved his rights despite the statute of limitations by simultaneously commencing a civil action and a compensation claim, we believe that the statute may properly be tolled for the period during which plaintiff pursued his compensation remedy. As we explain below, an awkward duplication of procedures is not necessary to serve the fundamental purpose of the limitations statute, which is to insure timely notice to an adverse party so that he can assemble a defense when the facts are still fresh. The filing of a compensation claim accomplishes this purpose and the tolling of the statute does not frustrate it. Moreover, nothing in the cases forecloses a rule that the statute is tolled during the pendency of compensation proceedings; indeed, the pertinent authorities support such a rule.

Defendants' suggested duplicative procedures would impose a heavy burden on all concerned. Such procedures would entail the filing of cases in our heavily burdened superior courts that would be mooted whenever the board decided it had jurisdiction to grant relief. Such procedures also would impose upon the claimant the burden of alleging contradictory pleas, for example, that he both was and was not an employee at the time of his injury or that his injury both did and did not arise from the course of his employment. Although the workmen's compensation system seeks to establish a nontechnical means to recover for industrial injuries a dual filing requirement presupposes a professional knowledge without which the worker would forfeit all right to recover.

The principal facts of the present case are these. Plaintiff Elkins alleges that he sustained a serious injury to his right arm when attacked on September 8, 1969, by a performing timber wolf at defendants' business, 'Animal Kingdom.' On July 13, 1970, in good faith and well within the one-year limitations period prescribed both for tort actions (Code Civ.Proc. §§ 335, 340, subd. 3) and workmen's compensation claims (Lab. Code, § 5405), Elkins filed an application for workmen's compensation benefits against defendants. The workmen's compensation referee on October 15, 1970, determined that Elkins had not been an 'employee' at the time of his injury and therefore was not entitled to benefits. (See Lab. Code, §§ 3351 et seq., 3600.) The referee's decision became final in mid-December 1970. (See Lab. Code, § 5900, subd. (b). See generally Argonaut Ins. Exchange v. Industrial Acc. Com. (1958) 49 Cal.2d 706, 710--711, 321 P.2d 460; United States Pipe & Foundry Co. v. Industrial Acc. Com. (1962) 201 Cal.App.2d 545, 20 Cal.Rptr. 395.)

Approximately one month later, on January 19, 1971, Elkins filed the present personal injury action seeking recovery for the same injury which served as the basis for his workmen's compensation claim. The trial court sustained defendants' demurrer on the ground that the action was barred by the applicable statute of limitations (Code Civ.Proc. §§ 335, 340, subd. 3), since it had not been filed within one year of the date of injury. Plaintiff urges that we hold that the running of the limitations period on his tort action was suspended from July 13, 1970, the date he initiated his compensation claim to mid-December 1970, when the referee's decision became final. 1

Our analysis begins with the case law. It has long been settled in this and other jurisdictions that whenever the exhaustion of administrative remedies is a prerequisite to the initiation of a civil action, the running of the limitations period is tolled during the time consumed by the administrative proceeding. (Dillon v. Board of Pension Commrs. (1941) 18 Cal.2d 427, 430--431, 116 P.2d 37; see also Lerner v. Los Angeles City Board of Education (1963) 59 Cal.2d 382, 391, 29 Cal.Rptr. 657, 380 P.2d 97; Skaggs v. City of Los Angeles (1954) 43 Cal.2d 497, 500, 275 P.2d 9; cf. Code Civ.Proc. § 356; 51 Am.Jur.2d, Limitations of Actions, § 170, p. 740.) Defendants urge us to distinguish the present case on the ground that plaintiff Elkins was not required to seek workmen's compensation as a prerequisite to his filing a civil action but rather could immediately have initiated a tort action or have pursued his compensation and tort remedies simultaneously. (See generally Taylor v. Superior Court (1956) 47 Cal.2d 148, 301 P.2d 866; Scott v. Industrial Acc. Com. (1956) 46 Cal.2d 76, 293 P.2d 18.)

Defendants' proposed basis for distinction, however, ignores a line of relatively recent California cases which points toward the principle that regardless of whether the exhaustion of one remedy is a prerequisite to the pursuit of another, if the defendant is not prejudiced thereby, the running of the limitations period is tolled '(w)hen an injured person has several legal remedies and, reasonably and in good faith, pursues one.' (Myers v. County of Orange (1970) 6 Cal.App.3d 626, 634, 86 Cal.Rptr. 198, 203; quoted with approval in Campbell v. Graham-Armstrong (1973) 9 Cal.3d 482, 490, 107 Cal.Rptr. 777, 509 P.2d 689; Anderson v. City of Los Angeles (1973) 30 Cal.App.3d 219, 226, 106 Cal.Rptr. 299.)

In the most recent of these cases, Campbell v. Graham-Armstrong, Supra, plaintiffs sought a writ of mandate to compel back payment of salaries for those years during which they claimed to have been improperly classified as part-time rather than fulltime teachers. Defendants urged that the relevant limitations period had expired on this claim, but we indicated that if plaintiffs had raised the issue at trial, the running of the limitations period would have been suspended while plaintiffs pursued their administrative remedy with the school board, provided that their pursuit of that remedy had been reasonable and in good faith. (Campbell v. Graham-Armstrong, Supra, 9 Cal.3d at p. 490, 107 Cal.Rptr. 777, 509 P.2d 689.) Our analysis rested principally upon two prior decisions of this court, Tu-Vu Drive-In Corp. v. Davies (1967) 66 Cal.2d 435, 58 Cal.Rptr. 105, 426 P.2d 505, and County of Santa Clara v. Hayes Co. (1954) 43 Cal.2d 615, 275 P.2d 456.

In Tu-Vu, supra, personal property of a corporate plaintiff had been wrongfully seized under a writ of execution issued in an earlier action to which plaintiff had not been a party. Although free to initiate a separate action for this wrong immediately, plaintiff chose instead to file a third-party claim and in this manner succeeded in securing the release of its property. It later filed a separate action to recover damages to its reputation flowing from the unlawful detention of the property, and we held that the running of the limitations period had been tolled during the pendency of the third-party claim.

County of Santa Clara v. Hayes Co., Supra, concerned a newspaper which had made errors in publishing a proposed county charter which errors went unnoticed until after voters had approved the charter. The county could immediately have instituted a damage action but instead presented the charter to the Legislature for approval, hoping that the errors were insufficient to necessitate the charter's invalidation. Although the Legislature approved the charter, the court subsequently invalidated it in a Quo warranto proceeding. The county thereafter sued the newspaper for damages, and this court held that the running of the limitations period had been tolled from the date the charter had first been considered effective to the date it had been judicially invalidated. The court concluded that the county's submission of the document to the Legislature had been a reasonable formal response to the publication problem and that it would have been 'anomalous' (County of Santa Clara, Supra, at p. 619, 275 P.2d 456) to penalize the county for proceeding as it had.

Two Courts of Appeal have recently adopted a similar approach. In Myers v. County of Orange, Supra, a widow brought an action against the county for her husband's wrongful discharge from his job; earlier, the woman had failed to obtain through administrative channels a declaration of reinstatement in order that she might receive death benefits. The Court of Appeal assumed that the plaintiff need not have exhausted her administrative remedies as a prerequisite to her seeking judicial relief, but it nevertheless declared that the running of the relevant one-year claim period had been tolled during the pendency of the administrative proceeding. 2 Finally in Anderson v. City of Los Angeles, Supra, a Court of Appeal in a proceeding for disability retirement benefits suspended the running...

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