High Court: Defendant estopped from relying on Statute of Limitations following admission of liability and settlement requests

Delivering judgment in the case, Mr Justice Mark Heslin applied the principles in Murphy v. Grealish [2009] I.R. 366 and held that it was unconscionable to allow the defendant to rely on the Statute. The court determined that the plaintiff had been lulled into a sense of security by the defendant that the Statute was not important to the case.

Background

In December 2013, the plaintiff suffered an accident at work, where a fellow employee pushed a trolley onto her ankle. In July 2015, her solicitor sent a letter to Aramark Food Services calling on the company to admit liability for the accident. In August 2015, a follow up letter was sent to Campbell Catering Limited, the legal entity trading as Aramark.

The defendant was insured by Zurich Insurance. On 24 August 2015, an agent left a message with the plaintiff’s solicitor asking for a medical report. Further, an email was also sent indicating that Zurich’s investigation was complete and that it would not be disputing liability in the case. This email was sent approximately three months prior to the expiry of the time period for a PIAB application in early December 2015.

On 23 October 2015, Zurich contacted the plaintiff’s solicitor by voicemail. An email was also sent which sought to follow up on the email of 24 August 2015. There was no suggestion of frustration or that the position as to settlement and liability had changed.

No response was provided by the plaintiff’s solicitor to any of Zurich’s communications. The plaintiff’s solicitor claimed that this was because he did not have a medical report available at that time. Further, a report was received in late October 2015 from a doctor, who had made a serious error by referring to the wrong ankle. Accordingly, the plaintiff’s solicitor requested a corrected report, but the doctor delayed in providing a new report.

On 23 November 2015, Zurich phoned the solicitor and left a message stating: “Just looking for a copy medical and we’ll try to get the thing settled.” However, no response was provided to this message. On 7 December 2015 (two days after the two-year limitation period) the plaintiff’s solicitor made an application for assessment to PIAB.

A conversation took place between the solicitor and the Zurich agent on 11 December and there was no suggestion that they would rely on the Statute. On 22 December, the agent confirmed by letter that they had been notified of the PIAB application and would be relying on the Statute to oppose assessment of the claim.

The plaintiff later issued a personal injuries summons in December 2016 and the defendant raised a preliminary objection that the claim was statute-barred. In the Circuit Court, the trial judge determined that the claim was statute-barred. The case was appealed to the High Court, where the plaintiff argued the defendant was estopped from relying on the Statute due to the admission of liability.

High Court

Both parties agreed that the relevant legal principles were contained in the cases of Murphy v. Grealish and Doran v. Thompson & Sons Ltd [1978] IR 223. It was accepted that two important factors emerged when considering the entitlement of a party to rely on the Statute. First, an admission of liability on the part of a defendant was essential. Second, the mere admission of liability could not allow a plaintiff to disregard the limitation period with impunity.

In Doran, it was held that a defendant would be estopped from relying on the Statute where “a Defendant has engaged in words or conduct from which it was reasonable to infer, and from which it was in fact inferred, that liability would be admitted, and on foot of that representation the Plaintiff has refrained from instituting proceedings within the period prescribed by the statute”.

Mr Justice Heslin noted the repeated attempts by Zurich to settle the case by seeking medical reports and that there was no hint that their position would alter on the passing of the limitation period. Further, there was an “explicit and unconditional admission of liability” in the case. There was also no suggestion that settlement was time-limited or conditional on engagement.

The court accepted that the plaintiff’s solicitor should have responded to the repeated communications by Zurich but held that this was not determinative of the issue. Rather, it was the conduct of Zurich which was relevant to the reliance on the Statute. In this regard, it was said that Zurich’s position after December 2015 represented a complete volte face on its dealings with the plaintiff.

Mr Justice Heslin held that, in objective terms, the repeated contact from Zurich could “reasonably have given the recipient comfort […] that the ‘Statute’ was not of particular importance in the present case”. The court also had regard to the subjective evidence of the plaintiff’s solicitor that he believed that limitation was not in issue due to the admission of liability.

The court noted that, in Doran, it was held to be dishonest or unconscionable for a defendant to escape liability by pleading the Statute having misled a plaintiff on the issue. In this case, the insurer went further and indicated that it was anxious to settle the case.

The court also accepted that Murphy v. Grealish applied, where it was stated: “This case’s history involves a combination of conduct which can reasonably be construed as an implied representation combined with a consequence that in all the circumstances it would be unconscionable to resile from the implied representation arising from the conduct.”

On this basis, the court held that the defendant was estopped from relying on the Statute. Further, the court distinguished McFadden v. Neuhold [2017] IEHC 240 on the facts of the case. Emphasis was placed on Zurich’s conduct as preventing the reliance on the limitation period and that the material differences in McFadden did not inform the court’s view of Zurich’s conduct.

Conclusion

Accordingly, the court allowed the appeal and held that the defendant was estopped from relying on the Statute of Limitations.

Tsiu v. Campbell Catering Limited t/a Aramark Ireland [2022] IEHC 391

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