Late Filing of a Wrongful Death and Survival Action and the ''Discovery Rule''
In Ciccarelli v. Carey Canadian Mines, Ltd., 757 F.2d 548 (3rd Cir. 1985), the Court of Appeals addressed an issue regarding the statute of limitations in a wrongful death and survival action where a statute of limitations barred a cause of action when decedents had died more than two years before the date of the filing of the original action.
The Court concluded that the prior statutes, as opposed to the current statutes, in effect for the wrongful death and survival actions applied, requiring the filing of a cause of action within one year of the death of an individual, and that the "discovery rule" did not toll the statute because specific Pennsylvania case law so precluded.
Because the plaintiffs had filed their cause of action more than two years after the deaths of the decedents, they were time barred.
Regarding the plaintiffs' complaint that the statute of limitations was unconstitutional, the Court of Appeals stated the following:
There is no absolute and unlimited constitutional right of access to courts.
All that is required is a reasonable right of access - a reasonable opportunity to be heard.
As the Supreme Court has noted:
Statutes of limitations which "are found and approved in all systems of enlightened jurisprudence," Wood v. Carpenter, 101 U.S. [(11 Otto)] 135, 139 [25 L. Ed.807] (1879), represent a pervasive legislative judgment that it is unjust to fail to put the adversary on notice to defend within a specified period of time and that the right to be free of stale claims in time comes to prevail over the right to prosecute them." Railroad Telegraphers v. Railway Express Agency, 321 U.S. 342, 349 [64 S. Ct. 582, 586, 88 L. Ed. 788] (1944).
These enactments are statutes of repose; and although affording plaintiffs what the legislature deems a reasonable time to present their claims, they protect defendants and the courts from having to deal with cases in which the search for truth may be seriously impaired by the loss of evidence, whether by death or disappearance of witnesses, fading memories, disappearance of documents, or otherwise.
Similarly, the Court has recognized that statutes of limitations:
Are by definition arbitrary, and their operation does not discriminate between the just and the unjust claim, or the voidable and unavoidable delay.
They have come into the law not through the judicial process but through legislation.
They represent a public policy about the privilege to litigate.
Their shelter has never been regarded as what now is called a "fundamental" right or what used to be called a "natural" right of the individual.
He may, of course, have the protection of the policy while it exists, but the history of pleas of limitation shows them to be good only by legislative grace and to be subject to a relatively large degree of legislative control.
Other courts recently have upheld statutes that in effect extinguish claims before they accrue.
Because statutory periods are in some sense arbitrary, the period to initiate suit occasionally expires before a claimant has sustained any injury, see, e.g., Jewson v. Mayo Clinic, 691 F.2d 405, 411 (8th Cir. 1982);
Dincher v. Marlin Firearms Co., 198 F.2d 821, 822-23 (2d Cir. 1952), or before the claimant knows he has sustained an injury, see e.g., Jewson, 691 F.2d at 411;
Clark v. Gulesian, 429 F.2d 405, 406 (1st Cir. 1970), cert. denied, 400 U.S. 993, 91 S. Ct. 461, 27 L. Ed. 2d 441 (1971). Such a statute does not violate due process if the limitation period is otherwise reasonable. Ciccarelli, 757 F.2d at 554-555.