How the Shoprite Checkers Case Clarifies the Impact of Curators on Prescription Act for Mentally Incapacitated Claimants

Summary

Learn how the Supreme Court of Appeal clarified that the appointment of a curator ad litem for a person with a mental disability does not lift the prescription impediment defined in the Prescription Act. This post analyses the Shoprite Checkers (Pty) Ltd v Mafate case and its implications for mentally incapacitated claimants.

The Prescription Act is a South African law that governs the time limits within which legal claims must be brought. It is relevant to the Shoprite case because it raised a special plea of prescription, arguing that the worker’s claim had prescribed as it was not instituted within the time limit set by the Prescription Act.

Introduction:

The Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) addressed two critical questions. First, it examined whether the appointment of a curator ad litem for a person with a mental disability affects the prescription impediments defined in the Prescription Act. Second, it explored whether a curator, in cases where the identity of the debtor and the debt’s origin remain unknown due to the victim’s severe injuries and mental incapacity, can rely on Section 12 of the Prescription Act. The case revolves around a tragic accident at a Shoprite Checkers store that left an employee severely injured and mentally incapacitated.

Summary of the Facts:

Ms Mkhwanazi was injured while working at a Checkers Hyper store. She fell from a cage attached to a forklift and suffered severe injuries, resulting in permanent mental incapacity. Due to her condition, she could not initiate legal proceedings on her own. Mafate was appointed as her curator ad litem. He subsequently filed a damages claim against Shoprite Holdings Limited, initially believing it to be the employer. However, he later realized that Shoprite Checkers (Pty) Ltd was the actual owner and withdrew the action against Shoprite Holdings. He later initiated fresh proceedings against Shoprite, who then raised a special plea of prescription, asserting that the claim had prescribed.

Analysis of the SCA Judgment:

The critical issue in this case revolves around prescription as defined by the Prescription Act. Section 3 of the Act allows for the postponement of prescription in specific circumstances. It applies when the person against whom prescription is running is a minor, insane, under curatorship, or prevented by superior force from interrupting prescription. The period of prescription is delayed until the relevant impediment ceases to exist.

However, the primary question is whether the appointment of a curator ad litem for a person with a mental disability removes the prescription impediment. The SCA clarified that a curator ad litem is appointed for individuals unable to manage their affairs due to mental incapacity, and they act on behalf of these individuals in legal matters. In Mkhwanazi’s case, her mental incapacity was the reason for appointing a curator.

The SCA emphasized that for creditors suffering from mental incapacity, disability, or disorder, the impediment defined in Section 13(1)(a) of the Prescription Act persists as long as the mental condition exists. Section 13(1)(a) explicitly states that the prescription period won’t end until a year has passed since the impediment’s cessation. In Ms. Mkhwanazi’s situation, her mental incapacity continued despite the curator ad litem ‘s appointment. Therefore, the appointment of the curator did not remove the prescription impediment.

It was also established that Mkhwanazi’s mental incapacity was permanent, and she would need a curator bonis to manage any proceeds from her claim. Consequently, the SCA affirmed that the prescription had not run its course, and the claim against Shoprite Checkers was not time-barred.

Conclusion:

In the Shoprite case, the Supreme Court of Appeal clarified that the appointment of a curator ad litem for a person with a mental disability does not lift the prescription impediment defined in the Prescription Act. The Act stipulates that prescription continues until a year after the impediment ceases to exist, and for individuals with mental disabilities, the impediment persists as long as their mental condition remains. Therefore, the claim against Shoprite was not time-barred, and the case could proceed.

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