In the summer of 2007, a woman was dining at a hotel restaurant in Alexandria, LA, when she was injured, allegedly by the restaurant’s negligence. Exactly one year later the aggrieved, Ms. Holmes, filed suit, naming Choice Hotels, Inc. as the defendant. Within weeks Choice Hotels responded, asserting it had no connection whatsoever with the hotel where the accident occurred. It seems that, through unfortunate circumstances, Ms. Holmes mistakenly named and served the wrong party.
Within a month of receiving notice of her mistake, Ms. Holmes amended her petition, correctly renaming the defendant. However, by the time they were served with notice, fourteen months had passed since the date of the injury. Granting the hotel owner’s motion for “exception of prescription,” the trial court dismissed the case.
Exception of prescription occurs when the prescribed amount of time to file a complaint expires. It is a procedural rule developed to protect a defendant from the burden of defending stale claims, but since it is developed purely for protecting the defendant against prejudice, where prejudice is absent, Louisiana law provides a doctrine that will allow the amended complaint to “relate back.” An amendment “relates back” to the date the original complaint was filed so long as the action asserted by the amended complaint “arises out of the conduct, transaction, or occurrence” of the action asserted in the original complaint. La.Code. Civ.P. art. 1153. The Supreme Court of Louisiana has set forth specific requirements prerequisite of an amended complaint that mistakenly named the wrong defendant in 1983.
1. It must rise out of the same transaction or occurrence.
2. The newly named defendant must have received notice such that he is not prejudiced.
3. The newly named defendant must know or should have known that if the plaintiff hadn’t made a mistake, they would have properly been named to begin with.
4. The newly named defendant must not be “wholly new or unrelated.”
Ms. Holmes asserted the same exact incident, meeting the first requirement. The second requirement balances protecting the rights of plaintiffs to pursue their claims and the rights of defendants that gave rise to prescription in the first place. Therefore, allowing an amended complaint to relate back is only allowed if it does not prejudice the defendant. For instance, serving a defendant 14 months after an incident might unfairly deny them of the opportunity to investigate the claim or perhaps dispose of crucial documents/evidence. At its core, the rationale is: had the would be defendant known sooner, they would have taken steps to prevent things detrimental to their defense from occurring. However, in the case at hand, the evidence shows that defendant had actual notice of the incident and, thus, is not prejudiced.
When the newly named defendant had actual knowledge, it is practically a given that the third element is met as well. In this instance, the defendant knew Ms. Holmes was injured on their property, and upon realization that she was suing another party, mistakenly thought to be owners, Defendant knew or should have known that Ms. Holmes would have sued them had she known the true owner.
The fourth element seems vague, but courts treat it as a reasonable and honest mistake requirement. The reasoning that Ms. Holmes met the fourth element included her clear intent to sue the correct defendants initially and the reasonableness of the mistake. In essence, the issue is whether the amendment was made to correct a misnomer rather than adding a “wholly new or unrelated” defendant. Furthermore, the court emphasized throughout the opinion that amendments should generally relate back in the absence of prejudice. Thus, although these rules and enumerated checklists are followed, the heart of the issue is whether or not the newly named defendant is prejudiced.
If allowing the amendment to relate back would allow for the a defendant with diminished capabilities of asserting defenses at trial than Defendant would have had if served within the prescribed time, then honest mistake or not, the amendment will not relate back.
It is important to abide by the procedural rules and make all reasonable efforts to render proper service of process, within the prescribed time. If you feel like you have the right to legal action, time is of the essence, and the experienced attorneys at Berniard Law Firm are fully capable of meeting your litigation needs.