Estate of Woody v. Big Horn County

Estate of Woody v. Big Horn County, 2016 MT 180 (July 26, 2016) (Baker, J.) (5-0, rev’d)

Issue: Whether the district court erred in holding that the estate’s claim was barred by the statute of limitations.

Short Answer: Yes.

Reversed and remanded

Facts: Kenneth Woody IV was killed on December 16, 2011 after the vehicle in which he was a passenger crashed, following a high-speed chase by a Big Horn County sheriff’s deputy. On September 11, 2014, Woody’s estate submitted a claim letter to the county, seeking $750,000 for wrongful death and survivorship damages. The letter informed the county it had 120 days to resolve the claim without litigation. The county commissioners acknowledged receipt on September 15, 2014, but never responded.

On March 3, 2015, the estate filed suit against the county in district court, asserting claims of negligence, survivorship, wrongful death, and negligent infliction of emotional distress. The county moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim, arguing the estate’s claims were barred by the three-year statute of limitations. The estate contended that its claim letter to the county tolled the statute under §§ 2-9-301, 2-9-302, and 27-2-209(3), MCA. 

Procedural Posture & Holding: The district court heard oral argument, and in December 2015 granted the county’s motion to dismiss. The estate appeals and the Supreme Court reverses.

Reasoning: The county is a political subdivision of the state. A plaintiff making a claim against the state must first present the claim to the Montana Department of Administration before filing a complaint in district court. § 2-9-301(2). Upon receipt of the claim, the statute of limitations is tolled for 120 days. Id. The statute does not contain a tolling provision for claims against political subdivisions, but still requires plaintiffs to present and file such claims with the clerk or secretary of the political subdivision. Actions rejected by the county commissioners must be brought within six months of the first rejection. § 27-2-209(3).

The district court concluded that Stratemeyer governed, and required dismissal. 276 Mont. 67 (1996). The estate relied on Rouse, which was overruled in part by Stratemeyer. The Court holds that Stratemeyer overruled Rouse only with respect to the interpretation of § 2-9-301(3). Rouse otherwise establishes that when a plaintiff files a timely claim against a county, the limitations period is tolled and the six-month period for filing in district court does not begin to run until the claimant receives notice of the denial of the claim. Under the county’s interpretation, the six-month period in the statute could serve to shorten the statute of limitations. The Court is reluctant to shorten the limitations period absent plain language in the statute.