Written by attorney Lawrence Lazzara Jr.

Arizona's Equitable Estoppel Case Law

Arizona does not have a general savings statute for civil actions, although tolling is available in certain limited circumstances. See A.R.S. § 12-501. If we were to pursue a cause of action based on the underlying personal injury claim, we may be able to prove the elements required for equitable estoppel that would toll the statute of limitations on the underlying action.

A defendant may not use the statute of limitations as a shield for inequity. See Hosogai v. Kadota, 145 Ariz. 227, 231, 700 P.2d 1327, 1331 (1985); Waugh v. Lennard, 69 Ariz. 214, 221, 211 P.2d 806, 810 (1949). Hence, notwithstanding the important policy served by the limitations statute, Arizona courts have recognized equitable exceptions to the application of the statute when necessary to prevent injustice. Hosogai, 145 Ariz. at 231, 700 P.2d at 1331.

One such exception applies when a defendant induces a plaintiff to forbear filing suit. In Certainteed Corporation v. United Pacific Insurance Company, 158 Ariz. 273, 762 P.2d 560 (App. 1988), for instance, the court estopped a defendant insurer from raising the limitations defense because the insurer had induced its claimant to delay filing suit. The insurer repeatedly delayed in responding to a legitimate insurance claim filed by the claimant, and represented that the claimant need not initiate litigation for the insurer to settle the claim. 158 Ariz. at 278, 762 P.2d at 565. The Certainteed court held that "an estoppel with respect to a contractual limitation period will exist if an insurer by its conduct induces its insured to forego litigation, by leading him to reason and believe a settlement or adjustment of his claim will be effected without the necessity of bringing suit." Id. at 277, 762 P.2d at 564. Similarly, in Roer v. Buckeye Irrigation Company, 167 Ariz. 545, 547, 809 P.2d 970, 972 (App. 1990), the court held that estoppel applies if a defendant engaged in conduct that induced a plaintiff to forego litigation by leading the plaintiff to believe his claim would be settled without the necessity of litigation. Cf. Hall v. Romero, 141 Ariz. 120, 126, 685 P.2d 757, 763 (App. 1984) (declining to apply the estoppel doctrine to bar the limitations defense because the defendant did not engage in conduct to induce the plaintiffs to forbear filing suit).

In 1992, the Supreme Court of Arizona revisited the decisions discussed above and held in the Nodle decision that:

Equitable considerations may estop a defendant from claiming the protection provided by a limitations statute. To benefit from estoppel by inducement, however, a plaintiff must establish four factors.

First, the plaintiff must identify specific promises, threats or inducements by the defendant that prevented the plaintiff from filing suit. See Floyd v. Donahue, 186 Ariz. 409, 413, 923 P.2d 875, 879 (App. 1996) (stating that estoppel does not apply in the absence of evidence of "concealment, a specific threat or demonstrable duress"). Vague statements or ambiguous behavior by the defendant will not suffice.

(Here, we could argue that we did not file a lawsuit because we were promised the policy limits.) Second, estoppel by inducement will preclude a defendant from raising the limitations defense only if the defendant's promises, threats or representations actually induced the plaintiff to forbear filing suit. See Roer, 167 Ariz. at 547, 809 P.2d at 972 ("In order to create an estoppel the conduct of the defendant must be so misleading as to cause the plaintiff's failure to file suit.") (emphasis added). Thus, when determining whether to apply the estoppel doctrine, a court must inquire into the plaintiff's subjective reasons for failing to file a timely suit.

(We can argue that Mr. Garcia’s attorney did not file a lawsuit because he relied on the written agreement that State Farm promised to pay the policy limits). Third, the doctrine applies only if the defendant's conduct reasonably caused the plaintiff to forbear filing a timely action. See id. at 547-48, 809 P.2d at 972-73 (holding that estoppel was not applicable because the defendants' non-committal acts toward plaintiff would not have induced a reasonable person to believe the defendants would remedy plaintiff's damages without the necessity of litigation, and thus to delay filing suit). This inquiry focuses on the plaintiff's objective basis for failing to file suit within the limitations period. When considering the reasonableness of the plaintiff's failure to timely file, a court must determine whether the defendant's conduct resulted in duress so severe as to deprive a reasonable person of the freedom of will to file the action. See Jones v. Jones, 242 N.J. Super. 195, 576 A.2d 316, 323 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 1990) (stating that the duress exerted by a defendant "must have risen to such a level that a person of reasonable firmness in the plaintiff's situation would have been unable to resist").

(Reasonableness will be easy to prove since they tendered the check along with the letter memorializing the written agreement) Fourth, the plaintiff must file suit within a reasonable time after termination of the conduct warranting estoppel. See Nelson v. Nelson, 137 Ariz. 213, 216, 669 P.2d 990, 993 (App. 1983) ("Assuming the appellant justifiably delayed the initiation of an action to assert her rights in reliance on the fiduciary relationship between the parties or because of mistake, misrepresentation or fraud, she nevertheless had a reasonable time to sue after the promises or representations ceased to justify delay."); Brewer v. Food Giant Supermarkets, Inc., 121 Ariz. 216, 217, 589 P.2d 459, 460 (App. 1978) ("If estoppel applies, the party has a reasonable time to sue after the promises or representations have ceased to justify delay."); see also Murphy v. Merzbacher, 346 Md. 525, 697 A.2d 861, 866 (Md. 1997) (stating that estoppel by duress applies only if a plaintiff brings action "within a reasonable time after the conclusion of the events giving rise to the estoppel"); John R. v. Oakland Unified Sch. Dist., 48 Cal. 3d 438, 769 P.2d 948, 952, 256 Cal. Rptr. 766 (Cal. 1989) (remanding for determination of whether the defendant in a sexual abuse action threatened the plaintiff, when the effect of any such threats ceased, and whether the plaintiff "acted within a reasonable time after the coercive effect of the threats had ended"). Implicit in this requirement is the notion that the estoppel by inducement doctrine does not permit the indefinite and unlimited extension of the limitations period. The requirement also allows a defendant to limit the period during which estoppel might otherwise apply by taking affirmative steps to terminate whatever behavior or conduct arguably operated to induce a plaintiff not to sue.

Nolde v. Frankie, 192 Ariz. 276, 280-281 (Ariz. 1998).

Free Q&A with lawyers in your area

Can’t find what you’re looking for?

Post a free question on our public forum.

Ask a Question

- or -

Search for lawyers by reviews and ratings.

Find a Lawyer