Although the law is fundamentally concerned with justice, justice often requires that a party take timely action to redress her harm. Indeed, negligence cases are subject to various statutes of limitations, and many would-be litigants have gone to court only to find that their claims, irrespective of their merits, have been lost because of the passage of time. Although many statute of limitations cases relate only to a plaintiff’s failure to take timely action, a recent decision from the First District Court of Appeals, Russ v. Williams, involved an intriguing situation when a defendant’s “mischief” helped assure that a plaintiff’s claims would be time-barred.
Although the merits of the claims were ultimately not reached in Russ, the case arose from a motor vehicle crash on May 15, 2009. The plaintiff alleged that the defendant’s negligence led to the accident and filed the complaint in this case in November 2012. The complaint was served on the defendant on March 1, 2013. On May 23, 2013, one week after the statute of limitations had elapsed, the defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing that his wife was actually the one operating the vehicle at the time of the crash and was the sole owner of the vehicle. The plaintiff moved to amend the complaint in order to add the defendant’s wife as the proper party. The defendant opposed the motion, arguing that the defendant’s wife was an entirely new party and that any claims against his wife were time-barred because the statute of limitations period had passed. The trial court granted the plaintiff’s motion to amend the complaint but reserved judgment on any statute of limitations issues. The claims against the original defendant were dismissed.
Thereafter, the plaintiff filed an amended complaint that asserted the same claims against the original defendant’s wife, and the wife promptly moved to dismiss the complaint as time-barred. In response, the plaintiff argued the defendant and his wife were sufficiently related such that the amended complaint could “relate back” to the date the original complaint was filed and that the defendant’s wife would suffer no prejudice as a result. The trial court granted the motion to dismiss, reasoning that although the relation back doctrine is applicable when corporate entities hold themselves out in public under the same name and have other indicia of relatedness, there is no support for the proposition that this principle applies with equal force with married parties. Since the evidence showed that the car was solely in the wife’s name and that she was the person operating the vehicle at the time of the accident, it followed that the amended complaint asserted a new claim against a new party and thus could not relate back to the filing of the original complaint.
Although the original defendant’s plan in delaying his motion for summary judgment until the statute of limitations had lapsed was fairly obvious, the First District affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the amended complaint. Under Florida law, general negligence cases are subject to a four-year statute of limitation, see Fla. Stat. § 95.11(3)(a), and the relation back doctrine generally does not apply “when an amendment seeks to bring in an entirely new party defendant to the suit after the statute of limitations period has expired,” Caduceus Props., LLC v. Graney, 137 So.3d 987, 993 (Fla. 2014). Although the relation back doctrine has been applied in situations when there is a sufficient “identity of interest” between the party originally sued and a new party, the First District concluded that this exception is inapplicable because “each spouse has his or her own legal rights and obligations” and, thus, “a suit against one spouse is separate and distinct from a suit against the other.” Russ, 159 So. 3d 408, 411 (Fla. 1st DCA 2015) (emphasis in original). Although the identity of interest doctrine has been applied in situations involving individual rather than corporate parties, the First District found that these cases were readily distinguishable. See id. at 411-12 (distinguishing cases). Finally, the court noted that the defendant was legally under “no obligation to advise plaintiff who to sue,” Gray v. Exec. Drywall, Inc., 520 So.2d 619, 621 (Fla. 2d DCA 1988), and there was no evidence that the defendant took deliberate action to “lull the plaintiff into believing that he had sued the correct party until after the statute of limitations expired” beyond simply waiting until the statute of limitations’ expiration, Johnson v. Taylor Rental Ctr., Inc., 458 So. 2d 845, 846 (Fla. 2d DCA 1984). Accordingly, the First District affirmed the dismissal of the amended complaint.
Although the court’s ruling may seem unfair, this case highlights the importance of both performing a thorough investigation and taking prompt legal action. Indeed, it is odd that the plaintiff would sue the husband rather than his wife, considering the vehicle belonged to the wife and was being driven by the wife at the time of the accident. In any event, the risk of the dismissal of one’s case can be minimized when one fully investigates the events at issue and makes the effort to file a complaint long before any statute of limitations issues would arise. The aid of experienced counsel can help in assuring that one’s claims are not lost by the passage of time or shoddy research, and those injured in a possible act of negligence should consider finding competent counsel prior to taking legal action. The South Florida car crash attorneys at Frankl & Kominsky have represented many injured South Florida drivers and are prepared to provide you with the benefits of their experience. If you’ve recently been injured and are curious about what options you have for legal recovery, feel free to contact us for a free case evaluation.