Ralph Walker, Inc. v. Gallagher

Decision Date20 April 2006
Docket NumberNo. 2005-IA-00586-SCT.,2005-IA-00586-SCT.
Citation926 So.2d 890
PartiesRALPH WALKER, INC. v. Michael E. GALLAGHER.
CourtMississippi Supreme Court

Robert R. Stephenson, Jackson, attorneys for appellant.

Wendy Schenique Wilson, Willie T. Abston, Jackson, attorneys for appellee.

Before SMITH, C.J., CARLSON an DICKINSON, JJ.

CARLSON, Justice, for the Court.

¶ 1. This interlocutory appeal arises from a vehicular accident and comes before us after the trial judge denied a motion to dismiss filed by one of the defendants whose name was added to the action in the amended complaint. The parties present the question of whether the amended complaint, which was filed almost five years after the collision, would be time-barred by the three-year statute of limitations, when the original complaint was timely filed within the applicable three-year period. At issue is the relation-back doctrine under Rules 9(h) and 15(c) of the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure. Finding the trial court erred in denying the added defendant's motion to dismiss we reverse and render judgment in favor of this added defendant.

FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS IN THE TRIAL COURT

¶ 2. While driving in Jackson on May 18, 1999, Michael Gallagher was struck by an eighteen-wheeler tractor and trailer rig driven by Dwayne Anders, an employee of Randy Hunt Trucking, Inc., which was a corporation owned and operated by Randy Hunt. Anders allegedly ran a red light. Gallagher commenced suit in the Circuit Court for the First Judicial District of Hinds County on March 21, 2002, two years and ten months after the collision, but within the three-year statute of limitations.1 In his original complaint, which contained allegations of negligence, Gallagher named as defendants Dwayne Anders, Randy Hunt, and Randy Hunt Trucking, Inc. During discovery, Gallagher became aware of the existence of Ralph Walker, Inc., which owned the trailer that Anders was pulling at the time of the accident. At that time, Anders was primarily hauling loads under Walker's direction. Also, an oral agreement existed that Walker was to handle dispatching for the tractor truck operated by Anders and owned by Hunt Trucking, Inc., which received payment for those miles dispatched by Walker. Gallagher also learned through discovery that Anders was driving a load to Walker's place of business at the time of the accident. On March 15, 2004, Gallagher filed a motion requesting the trial court's permission to file his first amended complaint, which would include Walker in the lawsuit. Circuit Judge Tomie T. Green granted Gallagher's motion to amend the complaint, and on April 9, 2004, almost five years after the collision, Gallagher filed his first amended complaint, adding Ralph Walker, Inc. as a defendant. Walker later filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to the provisions of Miss. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6), claiming that because the first amended complaint had been filed outside the three-year period prescribed by the applicable statute of limitations, it was time barred and should be dismissed. Gallagher responded by arguing that the amended complaint related back to the original complaint, thus tolling the statute of limitations, and that justice required that Gallagher be permitted to add Walker, because Gallagher did not know of Walker's existence until late in the discovery process. Walker replied to that response by arguing that the relation-back doctrine under Rules 9 and 15 of the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure did not apply in this case. The trial judge denied Walker's motion to dismiss without a written opinion or memorandum. The trial judge later dismissed, with prejudice, the claims against the other three defendants, noting they consented to the judgment due to the amicable settlements of their claims. After the trial court denied Walker's motion to dismiss, Walker filed a motion for certification for interlocutory appeal, which the trial judge also denied. We granted this interlocutory appeal to resolve the issue of whether the claim against Walker was time-barred, because the amended complaint naming Walker was filed outside the three-year period prescribed by the applicable statute of limitations, namely Miss.Code Ann. § 15-1-49 (Rev.2003).

DISCUSSION

WHETHER AN AMENDED COMPLAINT FILED OUTSIDE THE THREE-YEAR STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS RELATES BACK TO THE ORIGINAL, TIMELY COMPLAINT WHEN NO PROOF OF NOTICE HAS BEEN SHOWN.

¶ 3. Although disputed in the briefs, there is no question that our standard of review in this case is de novo. An appellate court is to review de novo the grant, or denial, of a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. Webb v. DeSoto County, 843 So.2d 682, 684 (Miss.2003). Gallagher acknowledges this, but in doing so cites to a case where, after we stated the standard of review, we also said that the trial court has the discretion in deciding to grant or deny a motion to dismiss and that we will not reverse the trial court unless that discretion is abused. Nguyen v. Mississippi Valley Gas Co., 859 So.2d 971, 976-77 (Miss.2002). In making that observation, this Court relied on cases not entirely on point regarding motions to dismiss under Miss. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). Therefore, this citation by Gallagher is, at the very least, confusing.

¶ 4. First, we have explicitly stated that, in reviewing Rule 12(b)(6) motions to dismiss, we are actually not required to defer to the trial court's judgment or ruling. Roberts v. New Albany Separate School Dist., 813 So.2d 729, 730-31 (Miss. 2002). Instead, we sit in the same position the trial court did. Id. Additionally, it is clear that our standard here is de novo, and not abuse of discretion. See, e.g., Vicksburg Partners, L.P. v. Stephens, 911 So.2d 507, 513 (Miss.2005); Roberts, 813 So.2d at 730-31; Arnona v. Smith, 749 So.2d 63, 65-66 (Miss.1999). A motion for dismissal under Miss. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) raises an issue of law, and we unquestionably review questions of law under a de novo standard of review. Lowe v. Lowndes County Bldg. Inspection Dept., 760 So.2d 711, 712 (Miss.2000). See also Donald v. Amoco Prod. Co., 735 So.2d 161, 165 (Miss.1999); Tucker v. Hinds County, 558 So.2d 869, 872 (Miss.1990). We have said, "[n]otwithstanding our respect for and deference to the trial judge, on matters of law it is our job to get it right. That the trial judge may have come close is not good enough." UHS-Qualicare, Inc. v. Gulf Coast Community Hosp., Inc., 525 So.2d 746, 754 (Miss.1987). Under a de novo standard of review, we will affirm only if the moving party can show beyond doubt that the plaintiff failed "to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." Miss. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). In order for us to affirm a grant, or reverse a denial, of a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, it must be such that no set of facts would entitle the opposing party to relief. Lowe, 760 So.2d at 712.

¶ 5. This case centers around the relation back of amendments to pleadings under Miss. R. Civ. P. 15(c). Rule 15(a) allows a party to amend a pleading subject to certain timeliness requirements, or otherwise, "by leave of court or upon written consent of the adverse party; leave shall be freely given when justice so requires." Miss. R. Civ. P. 15(a). An amended pleading which is changing the party against whom a claim is asserted relates back to the date of the original pleading under section (c) when certain requirements are met. Miss. R. Civ. P. 15(c). Here the pleading being amended is the complaint, and the party against whom the claim is asserted is Walker, the newly-named defendant.

Whenever the claim or defense asserted in the amended pleading arose out of the conduct, transaction, or occurrence set forth or attempted to be set forth in the original pleading, the amendment relates back to the date of the original pleading. An amendment changing the party against whom a claim is asserted relates back if the foregoing provision is satisfied and, within the period provided by Rule 4(h) for service of the summons and complaint, the party to be brought in by amendment:

(1) has received such notice of the institution of the action that the party will not be prejudiced in maintaining the party's defense on the merits, and

(2) knew or should have known that, but for a mistake concerning the identity of the proper party, the action would have been brought against the party. An amendment pursuant to Rule 9(h) is not an amendment changing the party against whom a claim is asserted and such amendment relates back to the date of the original pleading.

Miss. R. Civ. P. 15(c).

¶ 6. Walker makes several arguments based on an incorrect interpretation of the rule's language. Walker first argues that because no party was actually changed here, and instead Walker's name was added later, the rule does not apply. Rule 15 applies here as it clearly contemplates a "new party to be added by the amendment," as one can easily see in the comment to the rule. Id. (comment). Walker also argues that Rule 15(c) has three requirements: (1) the amendment must arise from a mistake of a party's identity; (2) the defendant must have had notice within 120 days of the expiration of the statute of limitations; and, (3) the plaintiff must have exercised reasonable diligence to discover the new party's identity. Walker applies an erroneous reading of the rule. As it applies to this case, Rule 15(c) states that for an amended complaint to relate back to the date of the original complaint when the amended complaint does not change a named defendant, there is only one requirement: the claim in the amended complaint must arise out of the same conduct, transaction, or occurrence as that set forth in the original complaint. Id. However, when the amended complaint does change a named defendant, as here, there are two additional requirements: notice and knowledge by the defendant who would be named. Id. These two additional requirements must be met within the Rule 4(h) time period, or 120 days...

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