Flynn v. Campbell (CA1 7/19/16)

This involves relation back of an amended Complaint when somebody sued the insurer instead of the insured.

Plaintiff and Defendant were in a car accident. Plaintiff made a claim against Defendant’s carrier, State Farm. One day before the statute of limitations ran she filed, pro se, an action for her injuries – but she filed it against State Farm. When State Farm moved to dismiss she got a lawyer, who amended her Complaint to substitute the proper defendant. That defendant moved to dismiss, arguing that the amended Complaint did not relate back. The trail court granted the motion; Plaintiff appealed.

The Court of Appeals reverses. Two of the three requirements for relation back under Rule 15(c) were agreed upon: the new Complaint related to the same occurrence and State Farm, whose knowledge is imputed to the defendant, knew of the lawsuit within the time for filing and service. The question was therefore whether the defendant (through State Farm) knew or should have known that Plaintiff had made a mistake “concerning the identity of the proper party.” Defendant argued that Plaintiff knew who she was, could have sued her, and sued her insurance company instead by choice, a deliberate decision. The court quotes from a U.S. Supreme Court opinion to the effect that knowing who people are but misunderstanding their roles in the matter is a “mistake” under the rule. The original Complaint alleged that State Farm had “assumed full responsibility for its insured’s actions,” which indicates mistake as to its role, not a strategic decision.

Unfortunately, the court goes on to suggest that a pro se plaintiff can be cut some slack in deciding on the proper party. It cites an order from an  Illinois federal District Court case. It also cites a paragraph from an Arizona case and does so both incorrectly (the wrong paragraph number; at least unless the court slips in one of its unannounced corrections-opinions the end of its paragraph 18 says “supra ¶ 10” rather than “supra ¶ 19”) and misleadingly (the paragraph in question has nothing to do with a pro-se issue). The rules mean nothing if pro se parties can be forgiven mistakes because they are pro se and there is no good reason here to suggest any exception to that. The court had already decided that Plaintiff’s misunderstanding of “crucial facts” resulted in a “mistake in identity.” It goes on to show, albeit not very clearly, that the real question is what the defendant knew or should have known, and that State Farm should have known perfectly well that Plaintiff was mixed up.

We assume that the lawsuit involves possible excess liability, which would explain why State Farm pursued this issue. Or maybe somebody really, honestly thought that something made this case genuinely different from the other ten thousand times that a pro se has filed at the last minute and named the insurance company. Otherwise, this is a shame. Do reasonable defense counsel advise reasonable companies that reasonable, and reasonably knowledgeable, courts will allow amendment and that fighting it would do nothing but make money for that defense counsel? If they didn’t then this opinion wouldn’t have needn’t to be published, nor even written, since a prior one would have settled the issue fifty years ago.

(Opinion: Flynn v. Campbell)