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

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

The case involves an incredibly tragic auto accident. A 1987 Mercedes-Benz 300SDL parked on an inclined street in Puerto Rico began rolling downhill and crushed and killed a six-month-old child. The plaintiffs’ product liability lawsuit alleged that design of the Mercedes-Benz caused the child’s death, alleging a “gallimaufry” of product liability theories against Daimler-Chrysler Corporation.
The Defendant moved for summary judgment claiming that it had never manufactured or sold Mercedes-Benz vehicles and that Daimler-Benz AG manufactured the car and DaimlerChrysler AG, a German company, was the successor in interest to Daimler-Benz AG. 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.

Critical to the court’s decision was that the product liability plaintiff’s lawyers demonstrated 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.

This makes all the sense in the world, right? 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 was meant.

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