Statute of Limitations When There Are 2 Legal Remedies

Elkins v. Derby (1974) 12 Cal.3d 410, stands for the proposition that when an injured person has two legal remedies and reasonably and in good faith pursues one, the statute of limitations should not bar pursuit of the second unless doing so would unfairly prejudice the defendant. In that case, the plaintiff first pursued a workers' compensation claim against defendants whom he believed were his employers. Several months later the workers' compensation referee determined the plaintiff had not been an employee of the defendants at the time of his injury and dismissed his claim. Approximately one month after the referee's decision became final the plaintiff filed a personal injury action against the same defendants for the same injury which had served as the basis for his workers' compensation claim. The trial court sustained the defendants' demurrer on the ground the action was barred by the one-year statute of limitations because it was filed more than a year from the date of the plaintiff's injury. The Supreme Court reversed, holding the plaintiff's action was not barred by the one-year statute of limitations because the limitations period was equitably tolled while he pursued his workers' compensation claim. The court gave several reasons for tolling the statute of limitations on Elkins's personal injury cause of action. Principally, the court concluded tolling would not interfere with the primary purpose of the statute of limitations to " 'prevent surprises through the revival of claims that have been allowed to slumber until evidence has been lost, memories have faded, and witnesses have disappeared.' " Loss of evidence is not a concern because the "defendants' interest in being promptly apprised of claims against them in order that they may gather and preserve evidence is fully satisfied when prospective tort plaintiffs file compensation claims within one year of their injuries." The court also pointed out a civil action, even if filed while the compensation claim was pending, would normally not move forward until the compensation claim was resolved. Finally, the court noted requiring an injured employee to maintain duplicate actions against the employer before the WCAB and a civil court might work an inequity upon an injured employee, would be "inefficient, awkward and laborious" and lead to the assertion of "mutually inconsistent" allegations before different tribunals.