The Year-and-a-Day Rule: A Common Law Vestige That Has Outlived Its Purpose

Article excerpt


In every sense--other than the strictly legal sense--there can be little doubt that Ralph Lynn Key caused the death of Brian Rollo. However, because Brian Rollo survived in a persistent vegetative state for nearly 18 months after being hit by a car driven by an intoxicated Ralph Lynn Key, Key could not be prosecuted for manslaughter in connection with the homicide. (1) The rule barfing Key's prosecution is a 730 year-old common law vestige prohibiting homicide prosecutions when the victim survives for more than one year and a day following the blow that eventually caused the victim's death. In Ex parte Key, the Alabama Supreme Court declined the opportunity to abrogate the "year-and-a-day rule", stating its firm adherence to stare decisis and its reluctance to invade the province of the Legislature. (2)

This article will discuss the historical development of the rule, the circumstances that have lead to its widespread abrogation, and the current state of the rule in the other states. This article will then discuss the reasoning of the Alabama Supreme Court in Ex parte Key. In this context, this article will review other situations in which the Alabama Supreme Court has abrogated or modified common law rules and has departed from stare decisis. In conclusion, the author will argue that the Alabama Supreme Court should have abrogated the year-and-a-day rule in Ex parte Key, that it should do so when next faced with the issue, or that, failing action by the Supreme Court, the Alabama Legislature should abolish the rule in order to bring Alabama law into conformity with the laws of our sister states and consistent with the circumstances that have made the rule obsolete.


A review of the origin of the rule and its subsequent transformation adds to the context for an evaluation of the rule's continued viability. Accordingly, this section will explore the rule's origin as a rule of limitations applied to private actions in thirteenth-century England. The rule's history will then be traced through its migration into American law and transformation into a substantive element of homicide offenses.

The Rule's English Origin

It cannot be disputed that the year-and-a-day rule is deeply rooted in the common law. The rule came into existence in 1278 as part of the Statute of Gloucester (3) and was intended as a statute of limitations governing the time in which an interested person might bring a private cause of action known as "appeal of death." (4) The "appeal of death" was a vindictive private action brought by an aggrieved person and derived from the Germanic custom of "weregild," the historical precursor of the wrongful death action. (5) Although the "appeal of death" was abolished in 1819, (6) the year-and-a-day rule had earlier become the law governing criminal prosecutions so that a homicide case would be barred unless the victim died within a year and one day of the injury. (7) By statute, the rule was one of limitation and ran from the death of the victim. However, in its transformed state, the rule ran from the infliction of the mortal wound. (8)

Adoption of the Year-and-a-Day Rule in the United States

The Supreme Court first applied the year-and-a-day rule in Ball v. United States. (9) In that case, the Court overturned the murder convictions of three men because the indictments against them failed to allege that the victim died within one year and a day from the attack. (10) In Louisville, E. & St. L. R. Co. v. Clarke, the Supreme Court again acknowledged the applicability of the rule to criminal prosecutions but declined to apply it in the context of a civil action for wrongful death damages. (11) Most American state courts have likewise broadly recognized the year-and-a-day rule. The Massachusetts courts recognized the rule as early as 1824, (12) and the North Carolina courts did so in 1826. (13) In many states, the courts held the rule to be in effect where the state in question had a statute or constitutional provision giving force to common law principles absent a statute to the contrary. …