Issue Concerning Naming Proper Defendant in Complaint

In Robinson v. Robbins, No. W2016-00381-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 19, 2016), the Court of Appeals addressed an issue regarding whether the savings statute applied when the defendant argued that the party in the second suit was different from the party named in the first suit.

This was an HCLA case, and plaintiffs first filed suit pro se. Their first complaint named the defendant as “Edward Todd Robins, MD, PC.” Within the body of the complaint, however, defendant was described in his individual capacity. When filing his answer, defendant included the language: “Comes now, Dr. E. Todd Robbins, P.C. as proper party for the above named Edward Todd Robbins, M.D., P.C…” Later in the suit, plaintiffs retained an attorney, who at some point in the first suit filed a motion “to clarify their intent to seek recovery from Defendant as an individual.” The trial court orally denied this motion, but “advised Plaintiffs that it would reconsider its ruling if they provided authority in support of their argument.” Before the order denying the motion was entered, plaintiffs took a voluntary dismissal of the first suit.

After giving proper pre-suit notice, plaintiffs filed their second suit, wherein they named “Edward Todd Robbins, M.D.” as defendant. Defendant moved to dismiss based on the statute of limitations, arguing that the first suit was filed against him in his corporate capacity and that the savings statute thus did not apply to a suit filed against him in his individual capacity, as the parties were not identical. The trial court agreed and dismissed the suit, but this dismissal was reversed on appeal.

On appeal, plaintiffs asserted that “the identity of the proper party must be determined from the allegations of the complaint.” They pointed out that they “never alleged the existence of a corporate entity in the complaint, that the body of the initial complaint clearly identified defendant in his individual capacity, and that the summons was served upon Defendant in his individual capacity.” They further pointed to an affidavit wherein plaintiff had testified that he drafted the original complaint and did not realize that “PC” stood for the words “Professional Corporation,” but instead thought they were a title that defendant held in addition to M.D.

The Court of Appeals cited Goss v. Hutchins, 751 S.W.2d 821 (Tenn. 1988) as authority on this issue, noting:

The rule in Tennessee before the adoption of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure was that the failure to correctly identify a defendant in the caption was not a fatal defect if the bill itself stated a cause of action against the defendant. The adoption of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure has not changed this rule. …The caption requirement of Rule 10 is merely for identification purposes, and does not control who is a party to the action. The issue of who is a proper party defendant must be determined from the allegations of the complaint.

Regarding the present matter, the Court reasoned that the “allegations within the initial complaint clearly identified Defendant in his individual capacity as the proper party,” and that defendant was served personally. The Court noted that “[o]ther than attempting to identify himself as a corporation by another name, Defendant never raised any issue concerning his identity by motion or specific negative averment.” Accordingly, the Court held that the savings statute applied and the second suit was timely.

When filing a complaint, it is important to do the due diligence required to name the proper party as defendant. Failure to properly name a party can lead to dire results for your client. If a mistake is made, however, this is a good case to cite in support of an argument that the allegations contained within the complaint take precedence over the name in the caption. While its unclear how much this particular result was influenced by the fact that the initial complaint was drafted by a pro se plaintiff, it could still be a helpful tool in your litigation arsenal.