Owens v. Okure
488 U.S. 235 (1989)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Owens v. Okure, 488 U.S. 235 (1989)

Owens v. Okure

No. 87-56

Argued November 1, 1988

Decided January 10, 1989

488 U.S. 235

Syllabus

Twenty-two months after respondent was allegedly unlawfully arrested and beaten by petitioners, two State University of New York police officers, he brought suit against them in the Federal District Court, seeking damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 on the ground that he had sustained personal injuries, mental anguish, shame, humiliation, legal expenses, and the deprivation of his constitutional rights. In denying petitioners' motion to dismiss the suit as time-barred, the court rejected their contention that § 1983 actions were governed by New York's 1-year statute of limitations covering assault, battery, false imprisonment, and five other intentional torts. The court concluded instead that the State's 3-year residual statute of limitations for personal injury claims not embraced by specific statutes of limitations was applicable. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: Where state law provides multiple statutes of limitations for personal injury actions, courts considering § 1983 claims should borrow the State's general or residual personal injury statute of limitations. Pp. 488 U. S. 239-250.

(a) Although Wilson v. Garcia,471 U. S. 261, held that 42 U.S.C. § 1988 requires courts to borrow and apply to all § 1983 claims a State's personal injury statute of limitations, Wilson did not indicate which statute of limitations applies in States with multiple personal injury statutes. Pp. 488 U. S. 239-242.

(b) In light of Wilson's practical approach of eliminating uncertainty by providing "one simple, broad characterization" of all § 1983 actions, id. at 471 U. S. 272, a rule endorsing the choice of the state statute of limitations for intentional torts would be manifestly inappropriate, since every State has multiple intentional tort limitations provisions. In contrast, every State has one general or residual personal injury statute of limitations, which is easily identifiable by language or application. Petitioners' argument that intentional tort limitations periods should be borrowed because such torts are most analogous to § 1983 claims fails to recognize the enormous practical disadvantages of such a selection in terms of the confusion and unpredictability the selection would cause for potential § 1983 plaintiffs and defendants. Moreover, the analogy between § 1983 claims and state causes of action is too imprecise to justify such a result,

Page 488 U. S. 236

in light of the wide spectrum of claims which § 1983 has come to span, many of which bear little if any resemblance to a common law intentional tort. Pp. 488 U. S. 242-250.

816 F.2d 45, affirmed.

MARSHALL, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

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