The issue posed upon this appeal is whether an injured plaintiff may successfully assert the toll of the Statute of Limitations for the disability of insanity, created by CPLR 208, upon the claim that he had suffered from a post traumatic neurosis.
Plaintiff was seriously injured on July 26, 1974 when the 1965 Volkswagen he was operating struck a utility pole and burst into flames. As a result of the accident plaintiff suffered massive injuries, including severe fractures and extensive burns. Plaintiff later commenced this personal
In opposition to this motion to dismiss, plaintiff asserted that the running of the Statute of Limitations was tolled by virtue of his claimed disability of insanity.
At a hearing to determine plaintiff's mental condition during the period of time surrounding the accident, plaintiff's psychiatric expert testified that plaintiff was suffering from a condition known as "post traumatic neurosis". Although it was established that plaintiff could function normally in many respects shortly after the accident, the expert opined that as a result of this neurosis plaintiff had attempted to repress and forget as much of the accident as possible and therefore would have had difficulty in cooperating with counsel or understanding his rights regarding the accident. Defendant's expert concluded, in contrast, that plaintiff was not previously unable to protect his rights. The record discloses that in February, 1975, plaintiff successfully entered college, and shortly thereafter he resumed participation in athletics and returned to his job as a stock clerk in a supermarket. In fact, during the period of plaintiff's claimed insanity, he was named as a defendant in an action by a passenger in the accident vehicle, and on September 17, 1975, less than 14 months after the accident, a third-party complaint against the City of New York was filed on his behalf seeking indemnification for damages which might be recovered by that passenger.
Plaintiff now maintains that his claim of post traumatic neurosis, manifesting itself in an inability to confront the memory of his accident, falls within the scope of the toll for insanity contained in CPLR 208. Defendants, on the other hand, contend that this is insufficient, implying that the insanity toll of CPLR 208 contemplates proof of an individual's over-all inability to deal with his general affairs, rather than simply a specific inability to deal with his affairs in relation to the accident.
In general, Statutes of Limitation are creatures of the legislative rather than the judicial process (see 1 Weinstein-Korn-Miller, NY Civ Prac, par 201.01). Similarly, the various tolling provisions to the Statutes of Limitation are largely, if not exclusively, the product of legislative design. Because the toll of the Statute of Limitations for the disability of insanity is a product of statutory law, our examination of the scope of this toll requires a determination of the legislative intent underlying the statute.
We begin by noting that the statute itself provides no definition of the term "insanity". Additionally, there is scant case law in this area. We have previously held that insanity need not have been adjudicated at the time the cause of action accrued (Hammer v Rosen, 7 N.Y.2d 376), and it has also been held that a temporary mental affliction arising from the accident in question may give rise to the toll for insanity (see Matter of Hurd v County of Allegany, 39 A.D.2d 499). In the present case, however, the
Statutes of Limitation are essentially arbitrary time limitations barring the commencement of an action, and they reflect the legislative judgment that individuals should be protected from stale claims (see 1 Weinstein-Korn-Miller, NY Civ Prac, par 201.01). As time passes, the defense of an action may become more difficult. Statutes of Limitation therefore have aptly been described as statutes of repose. Accordingly, the tolling provisions should not readily be given an expansive interpretation tending to undermine the basic purposes behind the Statutes of Limitation.
Indeed, the legislative history of CPLR 208 indicates that the Legislature intended the toll for insanity to be narrowly interpreted. When the CPLR was enacted, the Advisory Committee on Practice and Procedure reviewed the possibility of substituting the phrase "mental illness" for the term "insanity" contained in the tolling provision. This suggestion was rejected because of the fear that this change might result in unwarranted extensions of the time within which to commence an action (Fifth Rep of NY Adv Comm, NY Legis Doc, 1961, No. 15, p 43).
With this background, we must interpret the term "insanity" within the context of the case at hand. Although the condition of an individual's mental capabilities is largely a factual question, the toll claimed by plaintiff in this instance is untenable as a matter of law. In view of the refusal of the Advisory Committee and the Legislature to broaden the scope of the CPLR insanity toll, we believe that the Legislature meant to extend the toll for insanity to only those individuals who are unable to protect their legal rights because of an over-all inability to function in society. The statute, in our view, cannot be interpreted as
In reaching this conclusion, it should be noted that a contrary interpretation of the statute could greatly and perhaps inappropriately expand the class of persons able to assert the toll for insanity and could, concomitantly, weaken the policy of the Statutes of Limitation as statutes of repose. The expansion of the statute in the manner asserted by plaintiff therefore might best be reserved for legislative attention (cf. Thornton v Roosevelt Hosp., 47 N.Y.2d 780).
Accordingly, since the Appellate Division properly concluded that plaintiff's action was time barred by the applicable Statute of Limitations, the order of the Appellate Division should be affirmed, with costs.
Order affirmed, with costs.