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Strict Statute of Limitations Applies in Case of Elder Financial Abuse

The Florida Supreme Court rules that an elderly woman who says she did not learn that her funds had been misappropriated until several years after the fact may not take advantage of the doctrine of delayed discovery, which allows certain plaintiffs to pursue claims beyond the statute of limitations. Davis v. Monahan (Fla., No. SC01-1157, Nov. 7, 2002).

In 1997, Helen Monahan, an elderly woman suffering from senile dementia, sued her sister and niece for misappropriating her funds, charging breach of fiduciary duty, civil theft, conspiracy, conversion, and unjust enrichment. The majority of the transactions complained of occurred from 1990 to 1992. The trial court ruled that all the causes of action except civil theft were barred by a four-year statute of limitations. Ms. Monahan appealed, arguing that the statute of limitations did not apply because she did not learn of the misappropriations until October 1995. The Fourth District Court of Appeal reversed and remanded, holding that the doctrine of delayed discovery could apply in the case, raising the question of whether Ms. Monahan knew or reasonably should have known of the wrongful acts earlier. The court relied on Hearndon v. Graham, 767 So.2d 1179 (Fla. 2000), in which the Florida Supreme Court applied the delayed discovery doctrine to intentional torts arising from childhood sexual abuse of the plaintiff. The Fourth District found that the application of the delayed discovery doctrine was not limited to the factual situation in Hearndon.

The Supreme Court of Florida quashes the Fourth District''s decision and reinstates the trial court''s order. The court rules that this case does not fall under legislatively enacted exceptions allowing for the delayed accrual of a cause of action in cases of fraud, products liability, professional and medical malpractice, and intentional torts based on abuse. The court also holds that Hearndon is limited to the specific facts in that case. “To hold otherwise,” the court writes, “would result in this Court rewriting the statute, and, in fact, obliterating the statute.”

To download the full text of this decision in PDF format, go to: http://www.flcourts.org/sct/sctdocs/ops/sc01-1157.pdf.