The Alabama Supreme Court recently held that the statute of limitations for wantoness claims is two years. Walker v. Capstone Building Corp., __ So.3d __, No. 1090966 (Ala. June 3, 2011). At the same time, the Court confirmed that an intent to injure a plaintiff is not an element of wantoness. Id. at slip op. 13-16. Finally, the Court provided guidance on how its opinion would apply to existing claims. Id. at slip op. 35. In this post, we hope to provide a brief overview of the issues in Walker and provide a summary of this opinion’s application to any claims that have not been filed.
Section 6-2-34(1) provides a six-year statute of limitations for any “trespass to person or liberty, such as false imprisonment or assault and battery.” In a plurality opinion in McKenzie, the Court applied section 6-2-34(1) to a wantoness claim after stating that “wanton conduct is the equivalent in law to intentional conduct.” Walker overruled that portion of McKenzie’s holding.
Briefly stated, whether a claim falls under the limitations period of section 6-2-34(1) depends on whether the claim is similar to a writ for “trespass” or a claim for “trespass on the case.” According to the Supreme Court, this distinction was a “quagmire in Alabama jurisprudence for many years” as the court waivered between a “causality” and “intent” test for which writ applied. McKenzie v. Killian III, 887 So.2d 861, 866 (Ala. 2004). It is now well settled that the writs are to be distinguished by the “intent” test. Walker, No. 1090966, slip op. at 12 (reaffirming the holding of McKenzie and Carr v. International Refining & Manufacturing Co., 13 So.3d 947, 954 (Ala. 2009) that the “intent” test applies). That is, whether a claim is governed by section 6-2-34(1)’s limitations period depends on whether it is an “intentional tort” or one “based in negligence.”
This issue in Walker was which category did wantoness fall into? In a lengthy opinion based on a historical survey of Alabama cases and statutory interpretation, the Court concluded that wantoness was not the type of “intentional” act the legislature intended to cover under section 6-2-34(1). The Court drew a distinction between intent to act and intent to harm. The later category falls under 6-2-34(1), the former does not. The majority clarified that “intent to injure another [is] not an element of a claim alleging wantonness.” Walker, No. 1090966, slip op. at 14.
Having clarified the limitations period for wantoness claims, the Court addressed the effect of its opinion on wantoness claims that had already accrued. For wantoness claims that would be time-barred under the six-year limitations period within two years of the opinion, that period would remain. For all other wantoness claims, however, plaintiffs are given two years from the date of the opinion to file their claim.