Estate of James v. Peyton

Citation674 S.E.2d 864
Decision Date17 April 2009
Docket NumberRecord No. 081314.,Record No. 081310.
PartiesESTATE OF Robert Judson JAMES, Administrator, Edwin F. Gentry, Esq. v. Kenneth C. PEYTON. American Casualty Company of Reading, PA v. Kenneth C. Peyton.
CourtSupreme Court of Virginia

Dawn E. Boyce (Trichilo, Bancroft, McGavin, Horvath & Judkins, on briefs), Fairfax, for appellant American Casualty Co. of Reading, PA.

Leila H. Kilgore (Kilgore & Smith, on brief), Fredericksburg, for appellee.

OPINION BY Justice LAWRENCE L. KOONTZ, JR.

In these consolidated interlocutory appeals arising from a personal injury action, we consider whether the circuit court erred in concluding that an amended motion for judgment properly names an administrator of an estate rather than the estate itself as a party defendant. Specifically, we consider whether the language "Estate of Robert Judson James, Administrator, Edwin F. Gentry, Esquire" names a proper party to the personal injury action in question in these appeals.

BACKGROUND

Whether a pleading has adequately identified the proper party to be sued is a question of law. Therefore, we review the record de novo on appeal. Alcoy v. Valley Nursing Homes, Inc., 272 Va. 37, 41, 630 S.E.2d 301, 303 (2006); Wilby v. Gostel, 265 Va. 437, 440, 578 S.E.2d 796, 798 (2003); Transcontinental Ins. Co. v. RBMW, Inc., 262 Va. 502, 514, 551 S.E.2d 313, 319 (2001).

On April 5, 2004, Kenneth C. Peyton filed a motion for judgment1 in the Circuit Court of Culpeper County against Robert Judson James. Peyton alleged therein that on February 6, 2003, Peyton and James were involved in an automobile accident in Culpeper County at the intersection of Virginia Route 663 and U.S. Route 29. Peyton alleged that as a proximate result of James' negligent operation of his vehicle, Peyton suffered various personal injuries. Peyton sought $500,000 in damages.

At the time the April 5, 2004 motion for judgment was filed, Peyton's counsel was apparently unaware that James had died on March 1, 2003 as a result of injuries he sustained in the accident. James died intestate, and no administrator of his estate had qualified at the time the action was filed.

On July 6, 2004, Peyton filed a "MOTION FOR LEAVE TO AMEND MOTION FOR JUDGMENT/SUBSTITUTE ESTATE FOR DEFENDANT." (Emphasis added.) In that motion, Peyton requested that the circuit court grant "leave to substitute `the Estate of Robert Judson James, Administrator, Edwin F. Gentry, Esq.' for the Defendant, Robert Judson James." The motion further averred that "the proper party is `the Estate of Robert Judson James, Administrator, Edwin F. Gentry, Esq.'" A copy of the amended motion for judgment appended to Peyton's motion for leave to amend styled the defendant as "the Estate of ROBERT JUDSON JAMES, Administrator, Edwin F. Gentry, Esq." The following pertinent allegations of fact are made in the body of the amended motion for judgment:

2. Defendant, Robert Judson James, was a resident of Brandy Station, Virginia.

3. Robert Judson James died on March 1, 2003.

4. On June 28, 2004, Mr. Edwin F. Gentry, Esq. qualified as the Administrator of the Estate of Robert Judson James.

By an order dated July 7, 2004, the circuit court granted Peyton's motion for leave to amend. On the same day, the clerk of the circuit court issued a notice of amended motion for judgment to be served on Gentry.

On July 27, 2004, an answer and grounds of defense, captioned in the style of the amended motion for judgment, was filed. The pleading admitted that Gentry qualified as the administrator of James' estate. The pleading was signed:

ESTATE OF ROBERT JUDSON JAMES By Counsel

Peyton obtained service of process of the amended motion for judgment on American Casualty Company of Reading, Pennsylvania, his uninsured motorist carrier. Thereafter, American Casualty filed a response and grounds of defense on October 6, 2004.

Ultimately, on March 27, 2008, a motion for summary judgment was filed on behalf of "the Estate of Robert Judson James, Administrator, Edwin F. Gentry, Esq."2 Principally citing Swann v. Marks, 252 Va. 181, 184, 476 S.E.2d 170, 171-72 (1996), it was contended in the motion that Peyton's action was a nullity because the named defendant was an estate. The motion contained the further assertion that it was not sufficient to include a reference to the personal representative of the estate in the caption as "[t]his is not merely a mis-ordering of words," because "[t]he personal representative and the estate are two different entities," and, thus, "naming the estate is not a misnomer" which could be cured by a further substitution of the personal representative of the estate.

On April 1, 2008, following a hearing conducted on the motion for summary judgment, the circuit court ruled that Peyton's amended motion for judgment failed to properly identify Gentry, in his capacity as administrator of James' estate, as the defendant. Additionally, because Peyton's motion to amend had asserted that the "estate" was to be substituted for the original defendant, the court ruled that the amended motion for judgment had identified the estate, not Gentry, as the defendant. Accordingly, the court sustained the motion for summary judgment, ruling that Swann required that an action maintained against an estate could not be amended to substitute the personal representative since they are separate, distinct entities.

Thereafter, on April 16, 2008, the circuit court conducted a hearing upon Peyton's motion to reconsider the court's April 1, 2008 order. At that hearing, Peyton sought to distinguish Swann, contending that the amended pleading identifying the defendant as "the Estate of Robert Judson James, Administrator, Edwin F. Gentry, Esq." was merely a misnomer, not a misjoinder. Peyton requested the court to set aside the prior order granting summary judgment and, pursuant to Code § 8.01-6, to permit a further amendment of the motion for judgment "correcting" the style of the defendant to be "Edwin F. Gentry, Esq., Administrator of the Estate of Robert Judson James." This should be permitted, Peyton contended, because Gentry had actual notice of the action and would not be prejudiced by allowing the further amendment.

The circuit court initially announced its ruling from the bench, stating: "It may be that the style of the amended motion for judgment was not worded as one might expect. But Mr. Gentry, upon further review, is correctly named as the administrator. He is, in fact, the duly qualified administrator by this Court and he was personally served with process." Reversing its prior determination, the court concluded that the amended motion for judgment properly identified Gentry, in his capacity as the administrator of the estate, rather than the estate itself, as the defendant.

At the conclusion of the April 16, 2008 hearing, the circuit court entered an order vacating the April 1, 2008 order. In that order, the court expressly ruled that "the Defendant the estate of Robert Judson James, Administrator, Edwin F. Gentry, Esquire, is a proper party pursuant to this Court's Order."

Thereafter, on June 30, 2008 and pursuant to Code § 8.01-670.1, the circuit court entered an order certifying an interlocutory appeal to this Court on the issue whether "the Defendant `The Estate of Robert Judson James, Administrator, Edwin F. Gentry, Esquire' is a proper party to the action." By orders dated November 8, 2008, we awarded these appeals, consolidating them for argument and decision.

DISCUSSION

Initially, we observe that the party filing a civil action has an obligation to express the nature of the claim being asserted, and the identity of the party against whom it is asserted, in clear and unambiguous language so as to inform both the court and the opposing party of the nature of the claim being made. See, e.g., Ford Motor Co. v. Benitez, 273 Va. 242, 251-52, 639 S.E.2d 203, 207 (2007); Hensley v. Dreyer, 247 Va. 25, 30, 439 S.E.2d 372, 375 (1994). Thus, when there is an ambiguity in the pleading, whether as a result of a defect in form or lack of clarity in the allegations made, the proponent has the burden to show that the pleading is sufficient to identify the claims being asserted and the party alleged to be liable on those claims.

The motion for judgment filed by Peyton on April 5, 2004 was proper in form in that it clearly stated a claim for personal injuries allegedly suffered by Peyton as a result of the negligence of Robert Judson James, who was identified in both the caption and throughout the body of the pleading as the defendant. The record does not disclose whether, prior to filing the pleading, Peyton's counsel was aware that James had died on March 1, 2003.

Prior to July 1, 1991, an action "filed against a deceased party was a nullity." Parker v. Warren, 273 Va. 20, 24, 639 S.E.2d 179, 181 (2007) (citing Rennolds v. Williams, 147 Va. 196, 198-200, 136 S.E. 597, 597-98 (1927)). "Thus, if a litigant filed a personal action against a defendant who, possibly unbeknownst to the plaintiff, had died, ... the statute of limitations would continue to run." Id. Nor could the error, even if unintentional, be cured by substituting the executor or administrator of the deceased party's estate "because the personal representative was a person distinct from the decedent, the mistaken naming of the decedent was not a misnomer and substitution of the personal representative did not relate back to the initial filing of the lawsuit." Id. (citing Rockwell v. Allman, 211 Va. 560, 561, 179 S.E.2d 471, 472 (1971)); see also Swann, 252 Va. at 184, 476 S.E.2d at 172.

However, an amendment of Code § 8.01-229 in 1991 adding subsection (B)(2)(b) altered this long-standing rule "by providing that [an action] filed against a defendant who was deceased when the action was filed could be amended to...

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