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Website comment deemed to not constitute notice for relation back purposes.

Where a plaintiff named the wrong defendant in a premises liability suit, but claimed that the proper defendant had notice of the lawsuit due to a correspondence she had sent on its website stating that she had been in contact with her legal team, the proper defendant did not have notice of the lawsuit and the amended complaint naming the proper defendant did not relate back to the filing of the original suit.

In Hensley v. Stokely Hospitality Properties, Inc., No. E2019-02146-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Sept. 9, 2020), plaintiff slipped and fell in the Edgewater Hotel parking lot. She filed suit on June 18, 2019, naming Noble House Hotels as the defendant. When she later learned that Nobel House Hotels did not own the hotel at which she fell, she filed an amended complaint on August 5, 2019 naming defendant, who was the owner of the hotel at issue.

Defendant filed a motion to dismiss based on the statute of limitations, asserting that “the amended complaint could not relate back to the original complaint under Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 15.03, because [defendant] lacked notice of the original action until it was served with the amended complaint.” Plaintiff responded that “she gave notice of the impending lawsuit to [defendant] through the ‘feedback section’ of the Edgewater Hotel’s website.” The trial court dismissed the case, ruling that “the notice described in [plaintiff’s] affidavit and attached screen shots was not the notice required for relation back purposes,” and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

When a plaintiff names the wrong defendant in a lawsuit, he or she can proceed under Rule 15.03 to amend the complaint and name the correct party. This rule provides that the amended complaint will relate back to the filing of the original complaint if certain requirements are met, including that the correct party “has received such notice of the institution of the action that the party will not be prejudiced in maintaining a defense on the merits.” This notice “may be formal or informal,” but it must include “notice of the lawsuit, not notice of the underlying injury suffered by the plaintiff.” (internal citation omitted).

Here, it was undisputed that plaintiff filed her amended complaint after the statute of limitations had run, and thus her case against defendant was time-barred unless it related back to the original filing. The issue, then, was whether plaintiff’s “communication through the Edgewater Hotel’s website concerning her alleged injury provided the requisite notice for her amended complaint to relate back to her original complaint under Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 15.03.”

The comment cited by plaintiff as notice was a statement sent through the hotel’s website that said: “I have been in contact with my legal team since the week of June 2, 2019, and will be pursuing this matter to correct all medical issues due to the injury of my left knee.” The Court ruled that this did not constitute notice under Rule 15.03 for two reasons—first because “her statements did not indicate that a lawsuit seeking redress for her alleged injury had been filed.” Instead, the Court determined that her communication “merely advise[d] that she had interacted with attorneys concerning an injury to her left knee,” and that the statement could not be read to give notice of the institution of a lawsuit because plaintiff “did not file her lawsuit until seven days after making the online statement.” Second, the Court noted that there was no connection between the defendant in the original suit and the correct defendant “so as to impute Noble House’s knowledge of the lawsuit to [defendant].” Because the amended complaint could not relate back due to a lack of notice, dismissal of the case based on the statute of limitations was affirmed.

This case underscores the importance of proper research before filing a complaint. Here, the error of naming a defendant who did not actually own the hotel at which plaintiff fell led to her case never being heard on the merits.

NOTE: This opinion was published less than one month after oral argument.

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