Washington Court Dismisses Auto Accident Case Mistakenly Filed Against Driver’s Mother

In Washington, drivers involved in an accident resulting in injury must stop at the scene and remain there to give their name, address, insurance information and vehicle license number to the other driver, passengers or anyone who was struck or injured.  Pursuant to RCW 46.52.020, drivers must also show their driver’s license.  They must provide assistance to anyone injured, including getting them to medical treatment.  What happens, though, if a driver is shaken up and fails to provide all of the required information? A Washington appeals court recently considered whether a case could proceed when the plaintiff originally filed suit against the wrong party after not receiving all of the other driver’s identifying information.

The plaintiff was rear-ended.  She stated the other driver was very upset after the collision and insisted they not call the police or an ambulance.  The plaintiff stated that they exchanged insurance cards and wrote down each other’s information.  She stated the other driver did not offer her a driver’s license or state her name.  She believed the other driver’s name was the name on the insurance card.  In fact, the person named on the card was the other driver’s mother.

The plaintiff filed suit against the person named on the insurance card on the last day before the statute of limitations expired.  The defendant answered, stating the plaintiff had sued the wrong defendant.  The plaintiff amended the complaint to add the driver as a defendant more than two months after the statute of limitations expired.

The trial court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss, finding the driver had not received notice of the lawsuit within the statute of limitations.  The plaintiff appealed.

The plaintiff argued her amended complaint should “relate back” to the original complaint.  She also argued that Washington should follow the federal rule that allows a pleading to relate back within 90 days of the expiration of the statute of limitations.

In Washington, CR 15(c) applies when a plaintiff sues the wrong defendant and discovers the error after the statute of limitations expires.  If the plaintiff amends her complaint and meets the requirements of CR 15(c), the amended complaint is related back to the date of the original pleading and is considered timely.  CR 15(c) requires that, “within the period provided by law for commencing the action,” the party added in the amendment has received such notice of the lawsuit that they will not be prejudiced in maintaining a defense and knew or should have known the suit would have been brought against them but for a mistake in the identity of the proper party.  Washington courts do not allow relation back if the error was the result of inexcusable neglect.

The person amending the pleading has the burden of showing the conditions are satisfied.  However, the rule is liberally construed to allow relation back, especially if the opposing party has not been put to a disadvantage.

The plaintiff presented three arguments regarding notice.  She argued there was a question of material fact as to whether the other driver had actual notice.  She also argued there was a community of interest between the mother and daughter and the knowledge of the lawsuit should have been imputed to the daughter.  Finally, she argued for an equitable tolling of the statute of limitations.

The plaintiff argued the other driver’s affidavit raised the question of whether she had received actual notice on the date the statute of limitations expired.  In the affidavit, the other driver stated she was not aware of the lawsuit against her mother “[p]rior to November 13, 2015.”  Her declaration also stated she did not know about the lawsuit before that date.  The plaintiff argued these statements were ambiguous as to whether the other driver received notice on November 13 2015.  The appeals court, however, found other statements clarified this issue.  In her declaration, the other driver stated she did not learn of the lawsuit against her mother until an attorney called sometime after November 24, 2015.  The other driver therefore had not received actual notice until after the expiration of the statute of limitations.

The appeals court also rejected the plaintiff’s “community of interest” argument.  The appeals court distinguished the cases in which knowledge was imputed from the misnamed party to the proper party due to a community of interest as having a legal alignment of interests.  The appeals court found that factual circumstances such as cohabitation or familial relationship were insufficient to create a community of interest.

The appeals court also found against the plaintiff’s equitable tolling argument.  Equitable tolling allows a court to let a case proceed when justice requires it, even though the statute of limitations has otherwise expired.  A court may allow equitable tolling in cases of bad faith, deception, or false assurances.

The appeals court found no evidence the other driver tried to mislead or deceive the plaintiff.  There was no evidence the driver told the plaintiff she was the person named on the card.  The appeals court also noted there was no evidence the plaintiff used reasonable diligence to verify the driver’s identity.  The appeals court noted the driver was the registered owner of the vehicle and the plaintiff may have identified her with a cursory records search.

The appeals court then considered the plaintiff’s argument that Washington should align with the federal rule allowing relation back for 90 days after the complaint is filed.  The appeals court noted, however, that the language in Washington’s rule does not parallel the federal rule.  The federal rule explicitly allows the 90 day window, but that language is not in the state rule.

The appeals court therefore affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the case.

Justice Dwyer dissented, finding equitable tolling should have been applied because the other driver had violated the law by not appropriately identifying herself to the plaintiff.   The majority, however, did not agree that the violation of RCW 46.52.020 required equitable tolling.  Thus, anyone involved in an accident should try to obtain all of the other driver’s information and ask to see their driver’s license.  If you are injured in an automobile accident, an experienced Washington accident attorney can help you identify the proper defendants.  Call Blair & Kim, PLLC at (206) 622-6562 to discuss your case with one of our attorneys.

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