Skibbe v. Snitow and Taras M. Wochock, 2010 WL 5213777, December 6, 2010 (Pa. Com. Pl. 2010) is a case where a client was ignored. It is an interesting case because of what it stands for concerning the statute of ...
Skibbe v. Snitow and Taras M. Wochock, 2010 WL 5213777, December 6, 2010 (Pa. Com. Pl. 2010) is a case where a client was ignored. It is an interesting case because of what it stands for concerning the statute of limitations on legal malpractice actions. The case applies law concerning how much time may pass between a wrong and suit commencement, such that a case is still able to be heard.
The matter was originally heard in arbitration but when Skibbe lost, he appealed the decision. On appeal, the court found summary judgment in favor of the attorneys, thus it was appealed again, which is this case. Skibbe was in a car accident in 1987, and in 1989 he filed a complaint claiming personal injury against the other driver, and the other driver's employer. At the outset, Skibbe was represented by Peter Hileman, who withdrew representation in 1991. Taras Wochock then represented Skibbe until 1994, when Snitow was retained. On September 30, 1994 a letter was delivered to Wochock requesting the file, which was subsequently delivered to Snitow in 1995. During this period, neither attorney entered appearance with the court.
On June 15, 1995, the court issued a notice of termination because there had been little docket activity. All parties involved claimed to never have received the notice. On August 15, 1995, the action was officially terminated. Snitow claimed he was not aware of the termination until told by opposing counsel in November 1996.
Over the next few years, Snitow and Skibbe had some communication regarding the file. Snitow indicated he would appeal the termination. In 1997, Skibbe provided the document with dates of termination, and active file removal as of October 10, 1995, the case was removed from active files. The court finally heard the appeal in 2006, and denied it. Subsequently, in 2006, Skibbe brought this action.
When speaking of legal malpractice actions inPennsylvania, a plaintiff may use either tort or contract law. However, becausePennsylvaniastrictly applies statutes of limitation, the time period during which an action may be brought changes. For contract actions the statute of limitations is 4 years, and for negligence actions, it is 2 years.
To determine the trigger date for when an action accrues,Pennsylvaniauses the occurrence rule. This means the period during which an action may be brought begins when the alleged breach of duty happens, not at the realization of the actual loss. There is no pause for the statute because of an appeal of the underlying claim.
The exception to the occurrence rule is the discovery rule. When an injured person thoroughly investigates the cause of injury, but can not discover it, the statute is tolled. It is not tolled for mistake, lack of knowledge, or misunderstanding; the person must be unable to discover the injury or its cause. This prevents a retrospective view of whether the facts were ascertained within the allowable period.
In this case, the court considered the breach to have occurred as of August 15, 1995, when the underlying action was terminated. That is the date from which the statute of limitations for negligence begins. However, because Skibbe stated he never received the notice form the court concerning termination, this triggered the discovery rule. Thus, the statute was tolled from August 15, 1995 until Skibbe learned of the termination on April 11, 1997. In deciding on that date, the court focused on Skibbe's inability to ascertain any information relating to the legal malpractice cause of action. Notice, the court strictly applies the discovery rule, and does not even get into what Skibbe should have known, could have known, or mistakenly did not find out.
On April 11, 1997, the statute began running because on that date the delivery of the docket changed the nature of information. At that point, due diligence would have provided Skibbe with discovery of the termination. The court did not address whether the claim sounded in contract or negligence, but it did not matter because the action was not commenced until 2006. This was 9 years after the accrual began, which is much longer than either the 4 or 2 year period.
This case is a teaching point, because of the way in which the appeal affected the outcome of the malpractice. While Skibbe was appealing, the termination, the statute of limitations had already begun to run. Based on what the court stated Skibbe should have brought the malpractice action as soon as he learned of the termination. Alternatively if nothing else, some claim should have been brought by 1999 since it would have preserved both claims within the statute. Time is always ticking in legal actions, and that is the greatest lesson of this case.