Laches – The Saddest of All Affirmative Defenses

Just as D minor is the saddest of all keys, laches is the most forlorn of affirmative defenses.  Nevertheless, it has always been our favorite, and our dream is to one day win summary judgment based solely on our invocation of laches. But even after all of these years, we are still waiting for such a victory. Why does laches get no respect in dispositive motions?  As an affirmative defense, it’s something slightly less than the statute of limitations defense, which bars claims based on the passage of a set number of years.  Laches, as we all know, means that a party should be prevented from recovery because he or she has sat on their rights for too long, even though that period of time that they waited, may still be within the statute of limitations.

We have all seen plaintiffs wait until the last day before the statute of limitations before they file their lawsuits.  We have all seen plaintiffs appear to suffer no injury or damages whatsoever until their lawsuit is filed the day before the statute of limitation runs.  But how can a defendant successfully invoke laches?

Here’s how North Carolina defines the laches defense:

To establish the affirmative defense of laches, our case law recognizes that 1) the doctrine applies where a delay of time has resulted in some change in the condition of the property or in the relations of the parties; 2) the delay necessary to constitute laches depends upon the facts and circumstances of each case; however, the mere passage of time is insufficient to support a finding of laches; 3) the delay must be shown to be unreasonable and must have worked to the disadvantage, injury or prejudice of the person seeking to invoke the doctrine of laches; and 4) the defense of laches will only work as a bar when the claimant knew of the existence of the grounds for the claim.

MMR Holdings, LLC v. City of Charlotte, 148 N.C.App. 208, 209–10, 558 S.E.2d 197, 198 (2001); compare Hallums v. Hallums, 296 S.C. 195, 198–99, 371 S.E.2d 525, 527 (1988) ( “Laches is neglect for an unreasonable and unexplained length of time, under circumstances affording opportunity for diligence, to do what in law should have been done. Whether a claim is barred by laches is to be determined in light of [the] facts of each case, taking into consideration whether the delay has worked injury, prejudice, or disadvantage to the other party; delay alone in assertion of a right does not constitute laches.”) (citations omitted).

When you think about it, there’s actually a number of circumstances where this defense might apply readily.  Plaintiffs sit on their rights all the time, forgetting key or relevant information (whether it be the basis of the claim itself or even the names of doctors they’ve seen or the location of notes or photographs which might shed additional light on their claims).

Its time to allow laches to prevail more often in the courtroom. That would be something.

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