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Supreme Court Clarifies Proper “Relation Back” Analysis

By William J. Cantrell, Litigation News Associate Editor – September 9, 2010

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Krupski v. Costa Crociere S.p.A. [PDF] clarifies the proper analysis to determine whether an amended pleading adding a new party relates back for statute of limitations purposes under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(c)(1)(C).


While many defendants have historically tried to make the plaintiff’s lack of diligence and prior knowledge of potential defendants the focus of arguments that an amended pleading should not relate back, the Supreme Court has now held that such considerations are nearly irrelevant to that analysis.


“Costa Cruise” or “Costa Crociere”
The plaintiff in Krupski allegedly tripped over a cable and injured herself while she was onboard a cruise ship. She sued Costa Cruise, the entity she believed was the carrier and operator of the cruise ship, because her ticket and several other sources referenced the company. However, her ticket also identified Costa Crociere, the correct defendant, who actually was the carrier and operator of the cruise ship.


The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida granted the plaintiff leave to amend her complaint to add Costa Crociere as the correct defendant and Costa Cruise was dismissed. However, when Costa Crociere was added as a defendant, it immediately moved to dismiss based upon the expiration of the statute of limitations.


The district court rejected the plaintiff’s arguments that the amendment related back for statute of limitations purposes and dismissed the case. The district court concluded that the plaintiff had knowledge of the proper defendant, there was no mistake, and that the plaintiff delayed for months in moving to amend and then filing an amended complaint.


The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed noting that the plaintiff knew or should have known that Costa Crociere was a potential party and that she had been dilatory in seeking amendment.


Focus on Defendant’s Knowledge and Not on Plaintiff’s Diligence
In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court reversed the Eleventh Circuit. According to the decision, the Eleventh Circuit “chose the wrong starting point” in its Rule 15(c)(1)(C) analysis by focusing on what the plaintiff knew or should have known concerning the proper party’s identity.


The Court explained that “[i]nformation in the plaintiff’s possession is relevant only if it bears on the defendant’s understanding of whether the plaintiff made a mistake regarding the proper party’s identity.” Costa Crociere had “constructive notice” of Krupski’s complaint within the time limit for service under Rule 4(m) and “should have known” that it would have been named as a defendant but for “Krupski’s misunderstanding about which ‘Costa’ entity was in charge of the ship.”


The Court also rejected the Eleventh Circuit’s reliance on the plaintiff’s delay in seeking an amendment and other “dilatory” conduct as a basis for denying relation back. The Court concluded that the amending party’s diligence is not a factor to be considered under Rule 15(c)(1)(C).


Reactions to Krupski
“This is quite an interesting case,” says Betsy P. Collins, Mobile, AL, cochair of the ABA Section of Litigation’s Pretrial Practice and Discovery Committee. She notes that the decision has potentially broader applications because issues of constructive knowledge and unnamed, or “doe,” defendants come into play in other situations, such as motions to stay state court actions based upon the first-filed doctrine.


Litigators representing defendants should also recognize that this decision, and its rejection of traditional arguments made by defendants to avoid the relation back of pleadings, may effectively expand the statute of limitations period for unnamed parties in certain situations.


Rudy R. Perrino, Los Angeles, cochair of the Section’s Mass Torts Litigation Committee, cautions counsel representing potential defendants to “make sure your clients are aware that at the time of the passing of the statute of limitations,” they should “check to make sure suit has not been filed before they dispense with any documents that might be needed for the case.”


Keywords: Litigation, Supreme Court, Krupski, relation back analysis, Rule 15(c)(1)(C)


 

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