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Unfortunately, people lie to avoid owning up to wrongs or mistakes they have made. An innocent person harmed by this person’s actions may not discover they were lied to until years later, despite the lingering effects of that injury. In response to problems like these, Iowa adopted the doctrine of equitable estoppel. Talk to an Iowa litigation attorney to learn more about how this doctrine that people who suffered damage can still bring a lawsuit even if the statute of limitations has run.
What is Equitable Estoppel?
Equitable estoppel is a legal idea that prevents a person from benefiting from their wrongs. Suppose a defendant previously made some untruth to the plaintiff or intentionally concealed the truth from a plaintiff. In that case, Iowa courts may not let the defendant use that wrong to their advantage. If they decided not to sue on what the defendant told them, the plaintiff might be allowed to prevent the defendant from using an argument that only existed because of the lie.
For instance, if a doctor’s failure caused someone’s wrongful death, lied about the facts to the victim’s wife. The wife didn’t find out until after the three-year statute of limitations had run. The wife could still bring a claim against the lying doctor (see Christy v. Miulli, No. 6/03-2055 (Iowa Feb. 18, 2005)).
There is no set rule for when equitable estoppel may apply. In Iowa, equitable estoppel has historically occurred in cases involving a lie or misrepresentation from the defendant leading to the plaintiff not filing a case within the statute of limitations. In these situations, the court has often let plaintiffs file the case after the statute of limitations has run and prevented the defendant from using the statute of limitations as a defense.
What Needs to be Shown to Prove to Argue Equitable Estoppel?
To assert equitable estoppel, the plaintiff must show:
- The defendant has made a false representation/lied or has failed to tell the plaintiff essential facts;
- The plaintiff does not know the facts;
- The defendant intended the plaintiff to act based on what the defendant communicated to the plaintiff or failed to communicate; and
- The plaintiff did base their actions on what was told to them by the defendant and was harmed.
The plaintiff’s reliance on the communications from the defendant must be reasonable, meaning an average, reasonable person may have acted the same way. Equitable estoppel no longer applies once the plaintiff learns of the fraud or should have discovered it by taking ordinary care (i.e., an average person would have looked into the matter and discovered it was not true). Any facts or actions taken after discovering fraud are not subject to this rule.
What is Repair Estoppel?
Repair estoppel is an offshoot of equitable estoppel. Plaintiffs may use it when the defendant makes repairs and statements to hide the actual condition of a defective product while misleading the plaintiff. The plaintiff only discovers the defect after the statute of limitations has run. As a result, the plaintiff does not file the lawsuit on time. So, suppose a defendant says they fixed a product when they didn’t. The defendant will likely not be allowed to use the statute of limitations defense in that case.