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A Better Partnership
October 29, 2015

COA: Equitable estoppel applies where threats are made to kill or harm family members

The Michigan Court of Appeals held that threats of murder can be grounds for invoking the equitable estoppel doctrine.  In Doe v. Racette, No. 322150, the plaintiff appealed the trial court’s ruling granting defendant’s motion for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(7) (claim barred by statute of limitations).  While the plaintiff conceded that the applicable limitations periods had expired, he argued that defendant should be equitably estopped from raising the statute of limitations as a defense because his threats to kill him and harm his sisters prevented him from bringing his claim within the limitations period.  No Michigan case addressed whether a threat of murder can be grounds for invoking the equitable estoppel doctrine.  Thus, this case involved an issue of first impression.
This case arose after the plaintiff filed a complaint alleging that he had been sexually abused by the defendant for five years, starting from the time he was just five years old.  He brought five tort claims, which had all been barred under the applicable statute of limitations.  The trial court held that equitable estoppel could not be extended to this situation because the purpose of defendant’s alleged threats were not clearly designed to induce plaintiff from bringing his claim within the limitations period. The Court of Appeals disagreed, finding that if a defendant threatens to murder a victim should he or she disclose instances of sexual abuse, the threat necessarily encompasses all forms of disclosure, including disclosure in the form of a timely filed lawsuit.  Accordingly, a threat to murder a plaintiff and harm his family should he or she disclose instances of sexual abuse can establish the first element of equitable estoppel.
Nonetheless, the Court found that the plaintiff failed to show that he or she acted within a reasonable time to bring suit after the coercive effect of the threat had ended, thus precluding application of the equitable estoppel doctrine.  The plaintiff was nearly 21 years old when he first disclosed the abuse to the police.  As such, the trial court’s decision was affirmed.

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