• What Do You Know? The U.S. Supreme Court Weighs In On The Relation Back Doctrine
  • December 14, 2010 | Author: Michael J. Eshman
  • Law Firm: Drew Eckl & Farnham, LLP - Atlanta Office
  • The U.S. Supreme Court recently reversed a decision of the 11th Circuit regarding the relation back doctrine.  See Krupski v. Costa Crociere, 177 L.Ed. 48 (2010), overruling Krupski v. Costa Crociere, et al., 330 Fed. Appx. 892 (11th Cir. 2009).  The relation back doctrine allows a plaintiff to amend his/her complaint and add a party after the statute of limitations has run when the party to be added has received sufficient notice of the suit prior to the running of the statute of limitations such that it will not be prejudiced in defending the claim, and the party to be added knew or should have known that, but for a mistake of the plaintiff concerning the proper party’s identity, it would have been added in the initial lawsuit.  See Fed. R. Civ. P. 15(c).  Krupski focuses on the second part of this rule, concerning the knowledge of the party to be added and the mistake of the Plaintiff.

    Krupski was a personal injury case in which the Plaintiff claimed she suffered injuries while on a cruise ship.  Krupski, 330 Fed. Appx. at 893-894.  The Plaintiff sued the company from which she had purchased the tickets for the cruise, Costa Cruise Lines N.V., LLC (“Costa Cruise”), within the statute of limitations.  Id.  But she did not sue the operator of the cruise ship, Costa Crociere, S.p.A. (“Costa Crociere”) until after the statute of limitations had run.  Id.  The evidence showed that the Plaintiff had a ticket that identified Costa Crociere as the operator of the vessel, that she had retained that ticket, and that she had shared that ticket with her attorney.  Id. at 895.  The 11th Circuit determined that the identity and knowledge of Costa Crociere should be imputed on the Plaintiff and her attorney.  Id.  Based on this determination, the 11th Circuit ruled that this was not a case of mistake of identity, but a case in which the Plaintiff chose to sue one party instead of the other.  Id.  Therefore, the relation back doctrine did not apply.  Id.

    The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously overruled the 11th Circuit, finding that the 11th Circuit had the wrong focus in its analysis under the relation back doctrine.  See Krupski, 177 L.Ed. 48 (2010).  The Court ruled that the proper focus is “ on what the party to be added knew or should have known, not on the amending party’s knowledge...”  Id. at 53.  The Court noted that just because a plaintiff knows that a party exists, does not prevent the plaintiff from making a mistake as to the party’s identity.  Id. at 57.  The Court noted that the Plaintiff may have known the party existed, but she still could have been mistaken as to that party’s status and, therefore, mistakenly sued the wrong party.. Id at 57-58.  Based on this shift of focus, from what the plaintiff knew or should have known to what the party to be added knew or should have known, the Court found that the relation back doctrine could be applied to this case.  Id.

    Under the analysis adopted by the Court, the focus is on what the party to be added knew or should have known.  The shift in focus moves away from requiring diligence on the part of the plaintiff, to focusing in on what the party to be added knew or should have known.  Presumably, every time a plaintiff chooses not to add the proper party to a suit prior to running of the statute of limitations, the plaintiff has made a mistake.  Therefore, it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which the mistake requirement under the rule will not be met, and the real inquiry will only be what the party to be added knew or should have known.