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Ellisville State School and Mississippi Department of Mental Health v. Merrill

February 04, 1999

ELLISVILLE STATE SCHOOL AND MISSISSIPPI DEPARTMENT OF MENTAL HEALTH, JOINTLY AND SEVERALLY
v.
ERNESTINE MERRILL



Before Pittman, P.j., Roberts And Smith, JJ.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Roberts, Justice

DATE OF JUDGMENT: 09/02/97

TRIAL JUDGE: HON. BILLY JOE LANDRUM

COURT FROM WHICH APPEALED: JONES COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT

NATURE OF THE CASE: CIVIL - PERSONAL INJURY

DISPOSITION: REVERSED AND REMANDED - 02/04/99

STATEMENT OF THE CASE

¶1. The Appellants, Ellisville State School (or "School") and Mississippi Department of Mental Health (hereinafter jointly as the "State"), come before this Court appealing an order of the Circuit Court of Jones County which denied the State's motion to dismiss a defamation action brought against it by the Appellee, Ernestine Merrill (or "Merrill").

¶2. On October 2, 1995, the Ellisville State School, an arm of the Mississippi Department of Mental Health, published a letter about Merrill that she claimed was libelous. The letter was posted at several locations throughout the School and informed employees that Merrill was not to be allowed on the premises. Since the facility is gated and the entrance is regulated by a security guard, Merrill did not discover the letter until October 8, 1995.

¶3. On October 1, 1996, Merrill filed notice of her claim with Dr. Albert Randel Hendrix, Executive Director of the Department of Mental Health. Merrill filed her complaint on January 6, 1997.

¶4. The State filed a motion to dismiss, alleging that Merrill's claim was barred for failure to comply with the statute of limitations and notice provisions of § 11-46-11 of the Mississippi Tort Claims Act ("MTCA"). The State claimed that the MTCA's one (1) year statute of limitations began to run on the day that the letter was published -October 2, 1995. Additionally, the State claimed that Merrill allowed more than 95 days to pass between October 1, 1996 and January 6, 1997, which also would have violated the statute of limitations provision of § 11-46-11.

¶5. Conversely, Merrill argued that the statute of limitations did not begin to run until her discovery of the letter on October 8, 1995. Merrill asserts that the discovery rule should be applied to the statute of limitations contained in § 11-46-11, thereby making her notice given on October 1, 1996, timely filed.

¶6. The lower court heard the State's motion on September 2, 1997, and on September 19, 1997, entered an order denying the State's motion. The court found that the statute of limitations did not begin to run until Merrill's discovery of the publication on October 8, 1995 and as such fell within the applicable one (1) year statute of limitations.

¶7. Aggrieved by the ruling, the State filed a Petition for Interlocutory Appeal which was granted by the lower court. On December 15, 1997, this Court agreed to hear the petition. On appeal, the sole argument raised by the State is as follows:

I. THE DISCOVERY RULE DOES NOT APPLY TO TOLL THE ACCRUAL OF MERRILL'S LIBEL CLAIM AND PREVENT THE RUNNING OF THE ONE (1) YEAR STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS IN § 11-46-11.

¶8. This Court holds that the trial Judge was in error when he applied the discovery rule to the MTCA. Although the discovery rule was applied to the general libel statute of limitations in Staheli v. Smith, 548 So. 2d 1299 (Miss. 1989), this case can be distinguished. First, different accrual language is used in the general libel statute of limitations in § 15-1-35 and the MTCA limitations provision in § 11-46-11. Second, the Legislature, in § 11-46-11, mandates that its statute of limitations is controlling and is not to be subordinated by another limitations provision or legal doctrine. Third, keeping the discovery rule out of libel claims arising under the MTCA will fulfill an important policy interest of the State while not unduly burdening a limited class of plaintiffs.

¶9. However, the record seems to indicate that both Merrill's filing of notice and her complaint fell narrowly within the respective time limits. As a result, the trial Judge incorrectly held that Merrill's claim would have been late without application of the discovery rule. ¶10. Thus, we hold that Merrill's claim was timely filed despite this Court's refusal to apply the discovery rule. ...


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