COVID-19 Judicial Emergency Tolling Period in Virginia Clarified
September 7, 2022 By Melissa H. Ryan
A decision by the Roanoke City, Virginia Circuit Court has clarified the COVID-19 Judicial Emergency Tolling Period: Only cases that expired in the tolling period were extended.
During mid-March 2020, courts were forced to close temporarily due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In Virginia, both its Supreme Court declaration of a judicial emergency and initial court closures were coupled with the tolling of the statute of limitations period. After several emergency Orders, the COVID-19 pandemic ultimately tolled the statute of limitations in Virginia from March 16, 2020, through July 19, 2020. Initially, many were left wondering how the tolling period would be interpreted. Would it be applied broadly and provide a blanket extension for all actions, or would it be applied narrowly, just to address the cases that tolled within those 126 days? Judge David B. Carson of the Roanoke City Circuit Court met this issue of interpretation earlier this year in the case of George English v. Thomas William Quinn.
English v. Quinn involved a motor vehicle accident that occurred on July 28, 2018. Plaintiff filed his Complaint on November 30, 2020, and Defendant timely filed responsive pleadings, as well as a Plea in Bar. Defendant’s Plea in Bar argued that the Court must dismiss the matter with prejudice for Plaintiff’s failure to file his action within the statute of limitations period.
Both Plaintiff and Defendant interpreted the Judicial Emergency tolling period differently. Defendant argued the tolling period did not apply in this case because Plaintiff’s statute of limitations did not expire between March 16, 2020 and July 19, 2020. Absent the Judicial Emergency, Plaintiff’s time to file the case expired July 28, 2020, two years after the date of the accident. Plaintiff argued that the tolling period applied to all statutes of limitation and deadlines and was not limited to only matters that expired during the prescribed time frame of the Judicial Emergency. Thus, Plaintiff argued he properly included the additional days to his statute of limitations deadline that were granted by the tolling period, and, therefore, had timely filed his Complaint.
To reach his decision, Judge Carson considered the specific language of the Virginia Supreme Court Orders and the two examples provided therein. Both examples dealt with statute of limitations and deadlines that expired within the emergency tolling period itself. They did not consider cases with expiry dates afterwards. Judge Carson also found the second emergency Order instructive, which stated that “all applicable deadlines, time schedules and filing requirements, including any applicable statute of limitations which would otherwise run during the period this order is in effect, are hereby tolled and extended.” Judge Carson held that the language of the second Order and the two examples showed that the Virginia Supreme Court did not intend to broadly extend the statute of limitations in all cases. Rather, the Court’s intent was to only extend statutes of limitation and deadlines for matters that would have expired during the prescribed tolling period. Accepting Defendant’s analysis, Judge Carson granted the Plea in Bar and ruled Plaintiff’s claims against Defendant were barred by the statute of limitations.
So, what does this mean? Simply put, the decision creates the precedent that cases with statutes of limitation that expired after July 19, 2020 were not extended an additional 126 days. Though this issue could be litigated elsewhere in the state, it seems likely that courts will follow the precedent set by the Roanoke City Circuit Court and construe the tolling period narrowly.
 In law, tolling refers to the suspension of a statute of limitations. A statute of limitation firmly dictates the time frame in which a specific type of legal action may be filed.
 Case No. CL20-2857, Decided Feb. 7, 2022.
 In Virginia, the statute of limitations period for a personal injury action is two (2) years.
 Va. Sup. Ct.’s Second Order Extending Declaration of Judicial Emergency (emphasis added).