In a claim for damages for negligence the right to sue accrues at the date that damage occurs, even if no-one knows about the damage at the time.
To stop the limitation period for suing running prematurely section 14A of the Limitation Act 1980 disapplies the more general time limit in section 2 of the Limitation Act 1980 and provides for two alternative periods of limitation – 6 years from the date on which the right to sue accrued or 3 years from “the starting date” which is defined in subsection (5).
Section 14A only applies to claims in negligence and has no application to claims for nuisance, misrepresentation. or breach of statutory duty.
Section 14A (5) of the Limitation Act 1980 requires that the starting date is the earliest date on which the claimant had both:
1. the knowledge required for bringing an action for damages in respect of the relevant damage and
2. the knowledge required of their right to bring such an action.
Section 14A(6)(a) then says that “the knowledge required for bringing an action for damages in respect of the relevant damage” includes knowledge of “the material facts about the damage in respect of which damages are claimed”.
Section 14A(7) says “the material facts about the damage” are such facts about the damage as would lead a reasonable victim of such damage to think it serious enough to justify his starting proceedings for damages against a defendant who did not dispute liability and could satisfy a judgment.
In the Court of Appeal case of Blakemores LDP v Scott & Anor  the trial judge had thought that the relevant “damage” for the purposes of section 14A(5)-(7) was the respondent law firm’s failure, in April 2009, to file an objection to the registration of two Land Registry titles affecting a village before the procedural deadline.
The appellants, Ms Carole Scott (“Ms Scott”), Mr Eric Walker (“Mr Walker”) and Mr Christopher Balchin, were villagers. Ms Scott alone knew that the law firm had been negligent in failing to file the objection, but even Ms Scott did not know the consequences of that failure.
So an issue was whether merely knowing that the firm had been negligent in not advising that the objection should be filed before the deadline was enough to lead a reasonable person to consider it sufficiently serious to justify his instituting proceedings for damages against the law firm, assuming it to be solvent and unwilling to dispute liability.
The court said knowing the firm’s failure to file the objection before the deadline was insufficient knowledge of a “material fact about the damage” to start time running for the purposes of sections 14A(6)(a) and (7).
The appellants needed to know that the effect of the failure to file the objection was to allow the Land Registry Adjudicator to make a discretionary decision against them in relation to a title.
There were two reasons why the material fact about the damage could not just be the negligent advice or the failure to file the objection before the deadline:
1. the appellants were not experts in land registration or manorial law. They could not be taken to have known the arcane consequences of a failure to file an objection in time without being told what they were.
The consequences of the non-filing of the objection by the deadline were “a fact only ascertainable with the help of expert advice” but the last part of section 14A(10) of the Limitation Act 1980 did not mean that they should “be taken … to have [“extended constructive”] knowledge of [that] fact” because Ms Scott and Mr Walker had in April 2009 and before, taken reasonable steps to obtain expert legal advice.
2. The relevant material facts about the damage have to be such as would lead a reasonable person to consider it sufficiently serious to justify his instituting proceedings for damages against a solvent firm, not disputing liability. On the evidence Ms Scott may not have known anything that would have led a reasonable person to sue:
– she had no reason to think she would be worse off. She understood that the costs were to be covered by the law firm and not reclaimed from her
– she had reason to think the case was going to be successful, and
– most crucially she seemed unaware that the firm’s negligence had turned a clear right to have the title closed into a matter for the discretion of the adjudicator.
So the starting date for limitation purposes was not April 2009 when the failure to object occurred. A trial of the facts would be needed before that date could be properly decided.
This blog has been posted out of general interest. It does not replace the need to get bespoke legal advice in individual cases.