Florida State Appellate Court Provides Guidance for Defendants Pursuing Summary Judgment on Statute of Limitations Grounds

by Fowler White Burnett, P.A.

A Florida state appellate court recently provided guidance for defendants pursuing summary judgment on statute of limitations grounds where a plaintiff initially sues the wrong corporation and later substitutes the correct corporation as a defendant.

Recall that under Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.190, a party may amend a pleading and that “When the claim or defense 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, the amendment shall relate back to the date of the original pleading.”  The latter provision, Rule 1.190(c), is the key provision with respect to statute of limitations issues.

In May v. HCA Health Services of Florida, Inc., Case No. 2D13-5626, 49 Fla. L. Weekly D1035, 2015 WL 1955673 (Fla. 2nd DCA May 1, 2015), a former hospital patient and her husband filed a medical malpractice suit against several defendants, including Blake Medical Center Auxiliary (the “Auxiliary”). The Auxiliary was an affiliate of the corporation which owned and operated Blake Medical Center, where the treatment occurred.  

After suit was filed, the Auxiliary filed an answer asserting affirmative defense that it was not a proper party to the action.  Aside from this affirmative defense, the Auxiliary’s answer did not specify that it was a medical provider or that it did not operate Blake Medical Center.

One year into litigation, and after participating in discovery, the Auxiliary moved for summary judgment on the basis the statute of limitations had run on plaintiffs’ claims against it. Shortly after the motion was filed, the plaintiffs and the Auxiliary entered into a stipulation to substitute HCA Health Services of Florida, Inc. d/b/a Blake Medical Center (the “Medical Center”), the corporation which owned and operated Blake Medical Center, for the Auxiliary as a defendant.

In October 2012, the plaintiffs filed an amended complaint against the Medical Center, which then asserted a statute of limitations affirmative defense in its answer.  The Medical Center thereafter moved for summary judgment, arguing the statute of limitations had passed. The trial court entered summary judgment in the Medical Center's favor, finding that (i) the Auxiliary and the Medical Center were distinct entities, (ii) the Auxiliary’s answer should have put the plaintiffs on notice they had sued the wrong party, and (iii) there was no overlap in interest between the Auxiliary and Medical Center because the Auxiliary did not provide medical care.

In reviewing the applicable law, the Second District Court of Appeal noted that, typically, if a plaintiff sues the wrong entity, the mistake cannot be remedied after the limitations period has elapsed. However, an exception to this rule exists when, after the limitations period has passed, a substitution of a corporation as a defendant for another corporation amounts solely to rectifying a misnomer as to the correct defendant’s identity.  In that situation, the statute of limitations will not bar suit, and relation back to the original filing is permitted.  Factors considered in determining whether a misnomer occurred include an incorrectly named party's active participation in the litigation and whether it shares the same counsel, the same physical address, the same directors or officers, the same registered agent, or the same phone and fax numbers as the correct defendant.

The Second District reversed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment to the Medical Center, finding the plaintiff sued the Auxiliary based on a mere misnomer.  The Second District highlighted that the Auxiliary had conducted extensive discovery aimed at prolonging the litigation until the statute of limitations had expired and also noted that the Auxiliary shared a similar name and the same counsel as the Medical Center.

As reflected in May, Florida courts are lenient in permitting relation back if a plaintiff mistakenly sues the wrong party, particularly if the incorrectly named party has filed an answer and participated in discovery. Although this case reflects a limitations defense based on a plaintiff’s pursuit of claims against an improper party is difficult to prevail upon, a defendant wishing to pursue this strategy should be careful not to file an answer or participate in discovery.

4836-6849-0788, v.  1

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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