This scenario is not hard to imagine: you are driving along the road, and you get into an accident; however, the other vehicle is not just a regular car owned by a private citizen, but it is a dump truck owned by the local government. When suing a local governmental entity such as a sanitation department or police station, the injured party may face obstacles in naming precise owners of public vehicles or following procedural rules. A recent case out of St. Charles Parish demonstrates what kinds of procedural obstacles a plaintiff may face. It also helps answer the question; what happens if I name the wrong defendant in a lawsuit? Is my case over?
On January 13, 2010, three prisoners in the custody of the St. Charles Parish Sheriffs were being transported in a vehicle owned by the Sheriff’s office when it collided with a dump truck. As a result of the accident, the three alleged they had suffered “severe and grievous injury to body and mind.” On January 12, 2011, they filed a lawsuit against the Parish of St. Charles as the owner of the dump truck, the driver of the dump truck, and its liability insurer. Then the plaintiffs added the Parish of St. Charles Sheriff’s Office as the owner of the prisoner transportation vehicle and the employer of the dump truck driver.
After discovery, St. Charles Parish filed for a motion of summary judgment, asking the court to decide the case in their favor because the allegations were legally insufficient because the Parish did not own the dump truck. In support of its motion, the Parish attached a Certificate of Ownership, demonstrating the St. Charles Parish Sheriff’s office owned the dump truck. The trial judge granted the motion. Subsequently, Greg Champagne, the Sheriff of St. Charles Parish, filed exceptions of prescription, which essentially asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit because the plaintiff did not file the case on time or failed to follow procedural rules. The court also granted the exceptions of prescription, and the plaintiffs appealed.
In reviewing the trial court’s decision, the court explained La. C.C. art 3492 requires personal injury suits to be filed within one year of the injury. This one-year prescription begins on the day the plaintiff is injured. Further, La. C.C.P. art. 1153 holds when an action is amended, and the change was intended to be a part of the original petition, the amendment relates to the original. The court explained the plaintiffs did file their lawsuit within one year of the accident. The accident occurred on January 13, 2010, and the complaint was filed on January 12, 2011. However, the complaint wrongly named the Parish of St. Charles as the owner of the dump truck. Therefore, the plaintiffs amended their complaint to include Sheriff Champagne, the proper owner, on March 17, 2011.
The court used a four-part test to determine whether the plaintiffs’ amendment on March 17, 2011, related back to their original complaint not to violate the one-year prescription under La. C.C. art 3492. The court said for an amendment to relate back and satisfy the one-year timeframe, the claim must (1) arise out of the same conduct as alleged in the original complaint, (2) the substitute defendant must have received notice of the amendment, (3) the substitute defendant must know or should have known if the plaintiff had not made a mistake of the identity of the proper defendant, the action would have been brought against them and (4) the substituted defendant must not be wholly new or unrelated.
The plaintiffs argued their amendment did relate back to the original complaint because they were simply correcting an error instead of adding a wholly new defendant who would have to set forth an entirely new defense. However, the court disagreed with this argument because the facts established the Parish of St. Charles transferred ownership of the dump truck to the Sheriff’s office in 2009. Therefore, the Parish did not own the dump truck or employ the dump truck driver and was simply the incorrectly named defendant. The courts point to this as the most critical factor because it demonstrates the plaintiffs did not do their due diligence to look at the record and name the proper defendant. Further, the court considered Sheriff Champagne to be a wholly unrelated defendant from the Parish as a defendant because the Sheriff’s office is a political subdivision separate from the Parish.
Overall, this case demonstrates to be successful in a personal injury lawsuit; the plaintiff must be precise in naming the defendants and diligently follow procedural rules. Otherwise, failure to do so could cost the plaintiff recovery for their injuries.
Additional Sources: GARY WILSON, WILFORD LAPOINT, JR., AND GARNET CRUMP VERSUS JOHN DOE, ST. CHARLES PARISH AND XYZ INSURANCE COMPANY
Written by Berniard Law Firm
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