“Relates Back” Lawsuit Reinstated: New 1st Circuit Opinion and Maryland Law

The 1st Circuit Court of Appeals wrote a helpful opinion in Morel v. DaimlerChrysler AG for product attorneys who get the name of the defendant wrong when filing just before the statute of limitations expires. The court elevated substance over form in finding the claim “relates back” under federal law.

The page was updated in 2023 to give people the Maryland law on the relation back doctrine they were looking for when they found this page.

What Is “Relates Back” All About?

The “relates back” doctrine refers to a legal principle that allows an amended complaint to relate back to the date of the original complaint for statute of limitations purposes. In other words, if an amended complaint is filed after the statute of limitations has expired, the amended complaint can still be considered timely filed if it relates back to the original complaint.

Under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and the Maryland Rules, an amended complaint can relate back to the date of the original complaint if the claims in the amended complaint arise out of the same conduct, transaction, or occurrence as the claims in the original complaint. In addition, the party being sued must have received notice of the claims in the original complaint within the time required by law.

For example, if a plaintiff files a complaint alleging that a defendant negligently caused a car accident but later discovers additional evidence that the defendant was tried to hit the defendant’s car because of road rage, the plaintiff may file an amended complaint adding a claim for punitive damages based on the intentional act. If the amended complaint relates back to the original complaint, the plaintiff may still be able to pursue the claim for punitive damages even if the statute of limitations for that claim has expired.

Facts of Morel v. DaimlerChrysler

This is every parents’ nightmare. A four-year-old boy got into his grandfathered unlocked 1987 Mercedes-Benz 300 SDL.  While playing in the car, the vehicle rolled backward, pinning his six-and-a-half-month old brother under the vehicle. The infant died later that day.

The plaintiffs’ product liability lawsuit alleged that the design of the Mercedes-Benz caused the child’s death, alleging a “gallimaufry” of product liability theories against Daimler-Chrysler Corporation.  The gist was that the Plaintiffs claimed they defectively designed that the Mercedes and that it lacked adequate warnings. They claimed that the car was defectively designed because it did not have a key shift interlock (KTSI), brake shift interlock (BTSI) or push-button gear shift lever, all of which, plaintiffs alleged, would have prevented the child’s death.

The family filed a wrongful death lawsuit in the United States District Court for the District of Puerto Rico, naming Daimler-Chrysler as the defendant. Daimler-Chrysler moved for summary judgment on the ground that it had never manufactured or sold Mercedes-Benz vehicles, and that the plaintiffs had sued the wrong party. The plaintiffs then amended their complaint to substitute Daimler AG as the defendant, but Daimler AG moved for partial summary judgment, asserting that the adult plaintiffs’ claims were time-barred. The district court applied Puerto Rico’s relation-back rule and determined that the amendment did not relate back, and granted Daimler AG’s motion. The plaintiffs appealed.

1st Circuit Opinion

court opinion

Rule 15(c) is a procedural rule that governs in-court dispute resolution processes, and therefore does not violate the Rules Enabling Act. While federal relation-back rules may interfere with state rules at the margins, the federal policy behind the Rules Enabling Act aspires to create a uniform, comprehensive, and rational system of procedure in the federal courts, which outweighs any countervailing state interest. Additionally, Rule 15(c) does not alter state limitations periods, but simply requires that the original complaint be filed within the state-supplied limitations period.

Rules for Relates Back

In order to permit relation back of an amended complaint seeking to substitute a newly-designated defendant, three conditions must be satisfied under Rule 15(c)(1)(C). First, the claim against the newly-designated defendant must arise out of the occurrence set out in the original pleading. Second, the newly-designated defendant must receive notice of the action within the time allotted for service of process. And third, it must appear that the newly-designated defendant either knew or should have known that the action would have been brought against it, but for a mistake concerning the proper party’s identity.

Conditions Satisified

In this case, all three conditions were satisfied. DCAG received notice of the action within the allotted period, and it must have known that the action would have been brought against it in the first place but for the plaintiffs’ mistake. DCAG’s suggestion that the plaintiffs intentionally sued by an ambiguous name in hopes of obviating the need for Hague Convention service is unsupported by the record and unlikely. Therefore, Rule 15(c) applies, and the amended complaint substituting DCAG as a defendant is permitted. So the 1st Circuit found that the Amended Complaint, which was filed shortly after the motion for summary judgment was filed, relates back to the original lawsuit that was timely filed.

Substance Over Form

Critical to the court’s decision was that the product liability plaintiff’s lawyers showed that they made a mistake about the actual identity of the proper defendant and that, within the prescribed time, that Defendant knew or should have known that, but for the mistake, they would have been the subject of the product liability suit involving this car.

The reality is the family’s lawyers made a mistake about the actual identity of the proper defendant.  That is a screw up to be sure. It completely underscores what I have said 1000 times on this blog and on our website: you do not want to wait until the last minute to sue.  All of this could have been avoided if the plaintiffs’ lawyers had filed earlier (or if the plaintiffs had called a lawyer sooner).  So we all get that.

But the court said we will not rest on this hypertechnality (don’t look this word up in the dictionary!) which would just hurt the innocent victims.  Instead, the court said the plaintiffs had to prove that they made a mistake about the actual identity of the proper defendant and that, within the prescribed time, that defendant was put on notice of the fact that it would have been properly sued if the mistake had not been made.

This makes all the sense in the world, right?  The obligation that the bad guys got notice of a lawsuit is key to maintaining the notice requirement that is the underpinning of the logic behind having a statute of limitations in the first place, right?  But to assert that DaimlerChrysler AG was prejudiced through a lack of timely notice is a legal fiction that is just plain silly. The lawsuit names this Defendant in a way that any reasonable person knew exactly what they meant.

Post-Script on This Case

Ultimately, the parties agreed to settle and executed a confidential agreement and release.

The Maryland Rules of Civil Procedure Rule 2-341

Maryalnd Rule 2-341 provide that an amendment that changes the party against whom a claim is asserted will relate back to the date of the original pleading if the following conditions are met:

  1. The claim asserted in the amended pleading arose out of the conduct, transaction, or occurrence set forth or attempted to be set forth in the original pleading;
  2. The party to be brought in by amendment (the new party) received such notice of the institution of the action that the new party will not be prejudiced in maintaining a defense on the merits; and
  3. Within the time allowed by law for commencing the action against the new party, the new party knew or should have known that the action would have been brought against the new party, but for a mistake concerning the identity of the proper party.

If these conditions are met, then the amendment adding the new party will relate back to the date of the original pleading for purposes of determining the timeliness of the claim.

2022 Maryland Relation Back Doctrine Case

In Linz v. Montgomery County, decided in 2022, the plaintiff was injured in a car crash with a Montgomery County police officer.  Plantiff sued the County for negligence but later tried to amend his complaint to substitute the police officer as the sole defendant, claiming that he had sued the wrong party due to a misnomer. The circuit court denied the motion, finding the relation back doctrine did not apply, as there was no misnomer or compulsory joinder. The officer was not the intended defendant, and plaintiff’s lawyer’s misunderstanding of the indemnity laws did not justify the relation back doctrine.

The court does us a favor and walks us through the key relation back cases in Maryland:

  • Crowe v. Houseworth (1974) is a compulsory joinder case where the Court of Appeals held that the addition of necessary plaintiffs would relate back to the filing of the original complaint, as it would not increase the recoverable damages.
  • Grand-Pierre v. Montgomery County (1993) distinguished between the application of the relation back doctrine in the context of required joinder and misnomer.
  • Morrell v. Williams (1976) held that relation back did not apply when an amendment was made to add a new claim that would result in an additional amount of recovery.
  • Morton v. Schlotzhauer (2016) held that Rule 2-201 broadened the relation back doctrine to allow the substitution or joinder of a real party in interest to relate back to the filing of the original complaint.
  • Zappone v. Liberty Life Ins. Co. (1998) was an example of the relation back doctrine applying to the substitution of a real party in interest.
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