Estate Planning and Business Law

The Relation Back Doctrine

The term "cause of action" refers to the facts upon which the rights of action are based. When a plaintiff seeks to add new legal theories or causes of action, the amended complaint relates back to the date of the filing of the original complaint and can avoid the bar of the statute of limitations so long as recovery sought in both pleadings is based upon the same general set of facts. This rule is the result of a development which, in furtherance of the policy that cases should be decided on their merits, gradually broadened the right of a party to amend a pleading without incurring the bar of the statute of limitations. The relation back rule is in accordance with the basic principle of code pleading that a litigant need only allege the facts warranting recovery.

In Austin v. Massachusetts Bonding & Ins. Co. (Cal. 1961)56 Cal. 2d 596, the Supreme Court explained how the relation back doctrine would affect a defendant sued in his own name as opposed to a Doe defendant who was later identified. As to a defendant who knows that he has been designated by a fictitious name in the original complaint, application of the modern rule does not affect him differently from a defendant designated by his true name. The policy in favor of litigating cases on their merits is equally applicable whether a defendant is sued by a fictitious name or by his true name.

In a later Supreme Court case Smeltzley v. Nicholson Mfg. Co (1977) 18 Cal. 3d 932, Plaintiff's leg was amputated as a result of injuries he sustained while operating a debarking machine manufactured by defendant Nicholson. Plaintiff's original complaint alleged injuries caused by his employers' failure to provide a safe place to work. His amended complaint, filed after the statute of limitations had run, added a cause of action alleging that his injuries resulted from a defective machine manufactured by Nicholson. The trial court sustained Nicholson's demurrer without leave to amend, and entered judgment for Nicholson. The Supreme Court reversed. The court reiterated the established the rule that an amended complaint relates back to the original complaint so long as recovery sought in both pleadings is on the same general set of facts.

In Smeltzley the defendant, Nicholson, unsuccessfully argued that the original complaint did not mention a debarking machine. The Smeltzley court held that the reference in the original complaint to defendants' control over the lumber mill necessarily included defendants' control over machinery at that site. The crucial fact was not whether the original complaint mentioned the debarking machine as the reason the mill premises were dangerous, but that the amended complaint referred to the same accident and the same injuries referred to in the original complaint.

In Garrett v. Crown Coach Corp. (1968) 259 Cal.App.2d 647, the original complaint asserted that the named defendants and Does, one through five, negligently maintained and operated a school bus, causing plaintiff's injuries. Garrett's second amended complaint, filed after the running of the statute of limitations, substituted Crown Coach Corporation for Doe I, and alleged that Crown negligently designed and manufactured the bus. The trial court sustained Crown's demurrer without leave to amend and the Court of Appeal reversed on the ground that Crown was being held responsible for the same accident and the same injuries referred to in the original complaint.

In yet another Supreme Court case, Grudt v. City of Los Angeles (1970) 2 Cal.3d 575 plaintiff sued the city under the respondeat superior theory alleging that police officers had intentionally killed her husband. The amended complaint charged that the city was liable for its own negligence in retaining officers known to be dangerous. Even though the plaintiff's amended complaint added a significant new dimension to the original, the court determined that the amendment was based "on the same general set of facts" as the original complaint.

Finally, the Court of Appeal decision in Barnes v. Wilson (1974) 40 Cal.App.3d 199 further extends the principles expounded in Austin, Garrett and Grudt. Plaintiffs in a wrongful death action alleged that defendants, the owners of a tavern, negligently failed to warn the decedent of the danger created by his assailant's presence and negligently failed to protect decedent from the assailant. The fourth amended complaint, filed long after the statute of limitations had run, substituted owners of the neighboring tavern, and alleged that they negligently served liquor to the already intoxicated assailant. The trial court sustained the newly added party's demurrer without leave to amend. In reversing the trial court, the court of appeal concluded that plaintiffs' fourth amended complaint sought to hold the Noyds responsible for the same occurrence and damage alleged in the original complaint and allowed the amendment despite the fact that statute of limitations had run.

In Coronet Manufacturing Co. v. Superior Court (1979) 90 Cal. App. 3d 342 parents of the decedent sued the hair dryer manufacturer and several unnamed "Does" that supplied parts for the hair dryer for death caused by the hair dryer. The complaint was later amended to name Coronet manufacturer as a defendant, alleging that its lamp, switch, and socket were the offending appliances and not the original hair dryer. The court of appeal held that the amended complaint could relate back to the original complaint if plaintiffs showed chain of causation. Thus, if the plaintiffs pleaded that the hair dryer was connected to the lamp with its switch and socket which was manufactured by Coronet, then the amended complaint would be referring to the same accident, would be based on the same general set of facts, and would, therefore, be timely.

The foregoing precedents rest on the fundamental philosophy that cases should be decided on their merits. In all of the cases discussed above the original and amended complaints rested upon different theories and invoked different legal duties. In each of those cases the facts necessary to prove liability under the amended complaint differed significantly from those required to prove liability under the original complaint. Yet amendments were allowed to relate back to the original complaint.

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