No relation back where car accident plaintiff named wrong driver as defendant.

Where a plaintiff originally named the wrong defendant in a car accident case and did not file an amended complaint naming the correct defendant until after the one-year statute of limitations had run, dismissal was affirmed. In Black v. Khel, No. W2020-00228-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Dec. 30, 2020), plaintiff and defendant were involved in a car accident on May 11, 2018. In March 2019, plaintiff was involved in a separate car accident with a driver named Taylor Antonsen. On May 8, 2019, plaintiff filed a complaint for personal injury damages from the first accident, but she failed to name defendant as a party or refer to defendant in any way. Instead, plaintiff named “Taylor Antonsen” as the opposing party and referred to Antonsen throughout the complaint. One week after filing the complaint, On May 15, 2019, plaintiff realized the mistake and filed an amended complaint naming defendant as the other driver in the accident.

Defendant received a summons for the amended complaint then filed a motion to dismiss, asserting that plaintiff’s case was barred by the one-year statute of limitations. Plaintiff argued that her amended complaint related back to the filing of her original complaint under Rule 15.03, but the trial court rejected that argument and granted defendant’s motion to dismiss. The Court of Appeals affirmed dismissal.

The statute of limitations for personal injury actions is one year, and “[p]laintiffs who file their lawsuit at or near the end of the statute of limitations period face a difficult predicament if they make a mistake regarding the naming of the defendant.” (internal citation omitted). Certain conditions must be met in order for an amended complaint to relate back to the filing of the initial complaint under Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 15.03:

In order for a plaintiff to change the party against whom a claim is asserted, which allows relation back to the original date of filing, two requirements must be satisfied. First, the new party must have received sufficient notice of the action within the specified time-frame so that it will not be prejudiced in maintaining its defense. Second, each potential new party must have known that but for a misnomer or mistake concerning his or her identity, the action would have been brought against him or her. …[A] party’s ‘mistake’ does not exist merely because a party who may be liable for conduct alleged in the original complaint was omitted as a party defendant. The purpose of Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 15.03 is to enable parties to correct the mislabeling of a party they intended to sue, not to add a new party who was simply overlooked.

(internal citations and quotations omitted).

Here, it was undisputed that plaintiff’s amended complaint was filed four days after the statute of limitations ran and thus was untimely unless it related back to the initial filing. Plaintiff had the burden of showing that Rule 15.03 applied, and “she presented no evidence to indicate whether all the requirements of Rule 15.03 exist in this case.” The only exhibits presented by plaintiff showed that defendant was served with the amended complaint on June 19, 2019. Plaintiff offered no evidence to satisfy the requirements of the rule, other than arguments by her counsel at the trial court and in her appellate brief, which are “not evidence.” Because plaintiff failed to show that she met the necessary requirements, the Court of Appeals affirmed the ruling that the amended complaint did not relate back and this case was thus time-barred.

After the trial court’s dismissal, plaintiff filed a motion to alter or amend. Plaintiff styled this motion as a motion to reconsider, “but the substance and timing of the motion show otherwise.” In this motion, plaintiff argued that “her ‘mistake’ in naming the wrong tortfeasor justifies relief.” The standard for such a motion required plaintiff to “show that the trial court applied an incorrect legal standard, or reached a decision which is against logic or reasoning that caused an injustice to [plaintiff].” (internal citation omitted). Because plaintiff made no such showing, denial of her post-judgment motion was affirmed.

This case shows the importance of naming the proper defendant, especially if the complaint is to be filed close to the end of the limitations period. By naming the wrong defendant, plaintiff lost any chance to address the merits of this case.

NOTE: This opinion was released 2.5 months after oral arguments in this case.

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