Flynn v. Campbell, 743 Ariz. Adv. Rep. 13 (App. Div. I, July 19, 2016) (J. Norris)
LAY PERSON WHO MISTAKENLY SUES INSURER AND NOT INSURED AS A RESULT OF AUTOMOBILE COLLISION ENTITLED TO RELATION BACK TO ORIGINAL FILING WHEN FILING AMENDED COMPLAINT
Plaintiff was in an car collision and was given a “crash report” by the investigating police officer identifying the adverse driver and his insurance company, State Farm. The plaintiff contacted State Farm. Thereafter, the day before the statute of limitations was to run, the plaintiff filed a pro se complaint for injuries arising out of the collision against State Farm alleging it had “assumed full responsibility for its insured's actions.” State Farm moved to dismiss under Az. R. Civ. Proc. 12(b)(6). Plaintiff hired counsel who filed an amended complaint substituting the insured driver for State Farm. The trial court granted the motion to dismiss finding Az. R. Civ. Proc. 15(c), which allows relation back of an amended complaint when a party mistakenly sues the wrong party, did not apply. The Arizona Court of Appeals reversed and remanded.
Rule 15(c) is intended to avoid the harsh result of applying a statute of limitations when the plaintiff mistakenly sues the wrong party and allows relation back of an amended complaint naming the proper party where: the proper party has notice of the claim and mistake within the statute of limitations plus the time allowed under Az. R. Civ. Proc. 4(i) for service of the summons and complaint, is not prejudiced by the delay in defending on the merits and knows or reasonably should know that but for the mistake the action would have been brought against the proper party.
Notice to an alleged tortfeasor's insurer is imputed to the insured by operation of law.
Mistake, under the rule, is determined by what the plaintiff knew (or thought he knew) at the time the original complaint was filed. “[B]y definition, every mistake involves an element of negligence, carelessness, or fault.'" Thus “serendipitous” as well as “avoidable” mistakes are included under the rule. On the other hand a deliberate decision not to sue a party at the outset or the adding of a new theory requiring the adding of a defendant are not considered mistakes under the rule.
Here, while the plaintiff knew the identity of the proper defendant, he was factually mistaken as to State Farm's role in this personal injury lawsuit. This mistake of fact falls within the protection of Rule 15(c) and the amended complaint substituting the proper party relates back. While a pro se is charged with the same knowledge of the rules and law as a lawyer and ignorance of the law is no excuse, a pro se plaintiff's, “ignorance may inform the question of whether that party made a cognizable Rule 15 mistake.”