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Time Doesn't Stop Running for Intentional Emotional Distress Claim

The existence of an original duty must be determined before applying the continuing course of conduct doctrine to toll the statute of limitations in a non-negligence cause of action for intentional infliction of emotional distress. In Watts v. Chittenden, 115 Conn. App. 404, cert. granted, 293 Conn. 932 (2009), the Appellate Court held that there was no such duty. It was insufficient to rely merely on the existence of a relationship between the parents of minor children to support the application of the continuing course of conduct doctrine.

Facts:

  1. The plaintiff, John Watts, was the former spouse of the defendant, Heather Chittenden.
  2. They were married in 1993 and had two daughters, born in 1995 and 1996.
  3. The defendant filed for dissolution in March, 1999.
  4. On June 3, 1999, the defendant reported to the department of children and families (department) that one of her daughters had been sexually abused by the plaintiff. On July 1, 1999, an investigation into this claim was concluded in the absence of any evidence to suggest that the plaintiff was abusing his daughter.
  5. On July 21, 1999, the defendant made a similar report of abuse. The investigation stemming from this complaint was similarly closed on January 11, 2000.
  6. On January 19, 2000, the department received another report of abuse; the police eventually concluded that there was no evidence to support this complaint either. But the police concluded that there was substantial evidence that the defendant had sexually abused her two daughters.
  7. On April 11, 2002, the defendant pleaded guilty, as part of a plea agreement, to falsely reporting an incident and attempt to commit malicious prosecution.
  8. Following her guilty plea, the defendant made repeated accusations in 2004 and 2006 to family therapists regarding the plaintiff's continued sexual abuse of his daughters.
  9. On August, 29, 2005, the plaintiff filed a one count complaint sounding in intentional infliction of emotional distress.
  10. The defendant filed an answer and special defense claiming that the action was time barred under the statute of limitations.
  11. At trial, the court found in favor of the plaintiff; the defendant appealed.
  12. The Supreme Court has granted the plaintiff's petition for certification.

Reasoning:

The three year tort statute of limitations contained in General Statutes §52-577 commences to run on the date of the act or omission complained of, not the date when the plaintiff first discovers an injury. In Watts v. Chittenden, the trial court found that the statute of limitations was tolled by virtue of the defendant's continuing course of conduct and did not begin to run until the defendant admitted on April 11, 2002, that her accusations of sexual abuse against the plaintiff were false. The Appellate Court reversed the decision of the trial court.

To support a finding of a continuing course of conduct that may toll the statute of limitations there must be evidence of the breach of a duty that remained in existence after commission of the original wrong related thereto. That duty must not have terminated prior to commencement of the period allowed for bringing an action for such a wrong. Our Supreme Court has specifically stated: "Where we have upheld a finding that a duty continued to exist after the cessation of the 'act or omission' relied upon, there has been evidence of either a special relationship between the parties giving rise to such a continuing duty or some later wrongful conduct of a defendant related to the prior act."

The Appellate Court in Watts v. Chittenden stated that the application of the continuing course of conduct doctrine was necessarily premised on the existence of a duty that was in effect at the time of the original wrong. The plaintiff's counsel argued that a finding of an initial duty did not apply in this case, which alleged the nonnegligence cause of action for intentional infliction of emotional distress. Unclear whether it was referring to the original or continuing duty, the Appellate Court simply concluded that there was no authority to support a finding for recognizing a duty that arises only from the existence of a relationship between the parties as parents of minor children.

Practice Notes:

  1. The continuing course of conduct - and any other tolling doctrines - must be pleaded in avoidance to a statute of limitations defense.
  2. Note that Judge Lavine argues for a more flexible and broader application of the continuing course of conduct doctrine in cases involving ongoing abusive relationships.
  3. The court also held that the defendant's statements made to a family therapist during court-ordered therapy sessions were not considered absolutely privileged.
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