Supreme Judicial Court Expands Discovery Rule to Require Knowledge of "Whom to Sue"

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The "discovery rule" delays the three-year statute of limitations period for plaintiffs to bring tort claims "where the plaintiff did not know or could not reasonably have known that he or she may have been harmed by the conduct of another" until the plaintiff gains actual or constructive knowledge of the wrong. See Koe v. Mercer, 450 Mass. 97, 101 (2007). In an opinion issued last week, the Supreme Judicial Court broadened the discovery rule to include knowledge of the responsible person's identity, reasoning that such knowledge "seems implicit in the requirement that a plaintiff know that the defendant's conduct caused him harm; without such knowledge, the plaintiff does not know whom to sue." Harrington v. Costello, 467 Mass. 720, 2014 WL 1362630 at *4 (April 9, 2014)

The plaintiff-priest in Harrington filed a defamation suit against two fellow priests in November 2010, alleging defendants made a false and defamatory accusation in January 2005 that plaintiff was stalking a high-school age parishioner. Because the limitations period for defamation accrues when a defendant communicates a defamatory statement to a third party - meaning plaintiff brought suit almost three years beyond the statute of limitations - the Superior Court dismissed the suit.

On appeal, plaintiff argued his lawsuit was timely because the discovery rule tolls the statute of limitations for tort claims until a plaintiff knows, or reasonably should know, the defendant's identity. According to plaintiff, he did not know that defendants legally harmed him until November 2007, when he learned they had fabricated the substance of the defamatory accusation. With that knowledge, plaintiff believed he finally could bring suit against defendants because their fabrication removed the conditional privilege - stemming from their responsibility to protect their parishioners from harm - that otherwise protected defendants' actions under defamation law.

The SJC agreed with plaintiff in theory but not in application, restating the discovery rule as follows: "a cause of action accrues when the plaintiff discovers or with reasonable diligence should have discovered that (1) he has suffered harm; (2) his harm was caused by the conduct of another; and (3) the defendant is the person who caused that harm." Harrington, 2014 WL 1362630 at *4. Plaintiff lost, however, because "accrual under the discovery rule is not delayed until a plaintiff learns that he was legally harmed." Id., at *5. In other words, this expanded discovery rule will toll the statute of limitations until a plaintiff knows the actual identity of the defendant - but not until a plaintiff identifies the defendant as a viable litigation target. See id.

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