When an individual suffers an injury at the hands of another, it can be a devastating experience to both the individual and his or her family. It can impose unforeseen medical costs, result in an inability to work, create a dire financial hardship, or otherwise create a very difficult experience for everyone involved. But this is why we have the civil justice system: to make the victim “whole” by providing a means for obtaining legal relief against the wrongdoer.
In pursuit of fairness and equity, however, the law sometimes recognizes considerations in favor of the wrongdoer. One of the most prominent of these considerations are statutes of limitations—or, as we say here in Louisiana, “prescription”. Prescription describes the procedural device that places a time limit on a plaintiff’s right to pursue a claim. So, for instance, if you were injured as a result of another person’s negligence, you have one year to file the claim in court before prescription bars you from filing the lawsuit altogether. While there are many nuances to this general rule and different prescriptive periods for different causes of action, it generally operates in this way. As mentioned above, prescription works in favor of the wrongdoer and for good reason. It ensures that injured plaintiffs pursue their claims with reasonable diligence, it gives defendants certainty about the timing of a potential claim against them so they can adequately prepare a defense, and it keeps the lawsuit temporally close to when the injury occurred so that potential witnesses and evidence to be presented at trial are still available.
But lawsuits can sometimes get overly complicated, leading to oversights and inaccuracies by parties to the suit, attorneys, and judges. One classic instance of such an oversight is where the plaintiff names the improper defendant in the lawsuit, and in the meantime, prescription on the claim against the proper defendant runs. What happens in this situation? Do the courts let procedural rules trump the overarching goals of equity and fairness in the justice system?
One very recent case from the Washington Supreme Court illustrates this exact scenario. In Martin v. Dematic, a man was killed by a machine at the paper plant where he worked. His wife sued, but the company responsible for installation of the machine no longer existed. After sorting through a long and complicated history of the company’s mergers and acquisitions, attorneys for the wife ultimately filed suit against the wrong company. During the pendency of this suit against this improper defendant, prescription ran, and the wife’s claim expired. It wasn’t until after expiration of this claim that it was discovered that the defendant was the improper party. After learning the identity of the responsible party and filing suit, the company responded by stating that prescription had run and that plaintiff’s claim was, accordingly, barred.
But the plaintiffs weren’t necessarily out of luck at this point. Under a Washington procedural rule (shared by many other jurisdictions), a claim filed untimely may “relate back” to the original filing of the petition if it meets certain requirements, thereby circumventing the prohibition against prosecuting an untimely claim. CR 15(c), the Washington statute on-point for “relation back” states that “whenever the claim or defense asserted in the amended pleading arose out of the conduct, transaction, or occurrence set forth or attempted to be set forth in the original pleading, the amendment relates back to the date of the original pleading.” This tells us a number of things: First, a party seeking judicial relief for an injury must have filed a claim for damages related to the conduct that caused his or her injury. Second, if the original defendant was not the proper party to answer for the injuries, the plaintiff may amend their petition to name the proper party. Third, if the prescriptive period for brining this claim has expired, an amended claim naming the proper party may “relate back” to the original, timely filed complaint if this claim against the proper party arose out of the same conduct as was stated in the original petition. The intended effect of this exception to the rule of prescription allows for good faith plaintiffs to seek recovery when prescription has run due to an honest, good faith mistake.
Importantly, Louisiana recognizes a similar exception to the running of prescription under these circumstances. Louisiana Code of Civil Procedure article 1153 tells us that “[w]hen the action or defense asserted in the amended petition or answer arises out of the conduct, transaction, or occurrence set forth or attempted to be set forth in the original pleading, the amendment relates back to the date of filing the original pleading.” Again, this demonstrates Louisiana’s desire to “strike a balance between a plaintiff’s right to proceed against the correct defendant and the defendant’s right to be free from stale and prescribed claims.”
In Ray v. Alexandria Mall, the Louisiana Supreme Court delineated four factors to be used when determining whether an untimely claim against a proper defendant relates back where the reason for the delay is a mistake in the identity of the proper defendant. In Ray, the Court held that art. 1153 (see above) permits relation back of a subsequent claim to the original claim when: (1) the amended claim arises out of the same transaction or occurrence set forth in the original pleading, (2) the substitute defendant must’ve received notice of the action such that he won’t be prejudiced in maintaining a defense, (3) the substitute defendant must know or should’ve known that the action would’ve been brought against them but for the mistake in the proper party (4) the substitute defendant must not be a wholly new or unrelated defendant.
To injured plaintiffs, this should come as welcome news. Oftentimes, finding the proper party to answer for injuries you’ve suffered can be a difficult endeavor, particularly when companies no longer exist or have undergone many complicated mergers or acquisitions, such as in Martin v. Dematic. Sometimes, the error may result from merely failing to name the full company name as the defendant. This was the case in Ray where the original defendant named “Alexandria Mall” was not an existing legal entity, but instead, the proper party defendant was the “Alexandria Mall Company,” believe it or not. Either way, this “relation back” doctrine is well established in the law across the nation and particularly so in Louisiana, providing injured plaintiffs with an equitable solution to the problem of misnaming the proper defendant.