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What happens if you sue the wrong defendant in a Washington car accident case?

Posted by Brian C. Zuanich | Mar 14, 2019 | 0 Comments

A different kind of case

Unlike opposing attorneys—who are locked in litigation combat on a daily basis—judges are supposed to be above the fray. Figuratively (and literally in the courtroom), judges sit above it all. Neutral, un-biased, unemotional—these are the traits we commonly associate with judges. 

Consider how judges write when they disagree with their colleagues' opinions. “I respectfully dissent.” Not “your opinion is stupid and legally baseless.” Judicial disagreements about the law rarely become personal

That's why it was so odd when, in Price v. Gonzalez, a Court of Appeals judge launched the judicial equivalent of a Twitter attack against his colleagues who wrote the majority opinion. The majority opinion, the judge wrote, should not “reward a criminal for successfully deceiving the unsuspecting victim.”

He wasn't done. “It is not just to incentivize criminality.”

Car accident cases don't normally get this personal, especially fender bender cases not involving serious injuries. So why did this Court of Appeals case from June 2018 persuade one judge to go for the legal jugular?

The simple car accident that wasn't

The facts themselves weren't that unusual—far from it.

Stacy Gonzalez rear-ended Anne Price (no one disputed that Stacy was the at-fault driver). The two of them exchanged contact information, but Stacy didn't tell Price her name, and she didn't hand over her driver's license. She gave Price her mother's insurance card insurance card with only her mother's name on it. Price assumed that she was speaking with Sara Gonzalez, Stacy's mother.

In Washington, you have three years to file a personal injury lawsuit or your forever lose your right to sue. This time period is called the statute of limitations (SOL). Two years, 11 months, and 364 days after the accident (i.e. one day before the SOL ended), Price filed a lawsuit against Sara Gonzales.

Sara filed her answer with the Court. You sued the wrong defendant, she said. 

Price amended her complaint two months later (i.e. after the three-year SOL deadline), and named Stacy as an additional defendant. Sarah and Stacy then filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that Stacy (the proper defendant) did not receive notice of the lawsuit within the SOL period.

The trial judge agreed and dismissed the case. Price appealed.

Price tries to save her lawsuit ... but the Court says no

Under Washington law, a plaintiff who sues the wrong defendant in a civil case and later realizes her mistake after the SOL expires can amend her complaint and add the legally responsible defendant. If this happens, the court may treat an amended complaint as if the plaintiff had filed the complaint properly to begin with (i.e. before the SOL had expired).

The “may” language is huge, however. That's because a civil plaintiff can only take advantage of this court rule (CR 15c) if she meets certain requirements. Price argued that she met the requirements. The appeals court said she didn't. 

For instance, a plaintiff can take advantage of CR 15c if she can prove that the proper defendant knew about the lawsuit before the SOL expired. In this case, Price could have saved her lawsuit if she could prove that Stacy knew about the lawsuit before the SOL deadline, even if Stacy didn't get the actual paperwork until after the SOL deadline.

Stacy claimed she didn't know about the lawsuit until after speaking with Sara's attorney, after the SOL deadline. Whether you believe Sara is a different question. What matters is that Price couldn't prove that Stacy knew about the lawsuit before the deadline. That's why Price couldn't take advantage of the “actual notice” exception to CR 15(c).

A plaintiff can also get around the SOL deadline in this kind of case if she can prove that the proper defendant engaged in “bad faith” or “deception.” If these are present, the court will equitably “toll” (i.e. extend) the SOL in the interests of justice. Price argued that Stacy deceived her by refusing to provide her true name.

The Court disagreed. Stacy never claimed that she was her mother Sarah. Price simply assumed that she was Sara, because Stacy handed her Sara's insurance card. Because Stacy didn't make a “deliberate attempt” to mislead, Stacy didn't engage in bad faith. For this reason, Price also couldn't take advantage of the so-called “equitable” exception to CR 15(c).

One judge comes to Price's defense ... but it's not enough

The dissenting judge focused on the equitable issue. Stacy clearly broke the law. Under RCW 46.52.020 (the so called hit and run statute), drivers must exchange certain information following a car accident, including specifically their name, address, and insurance information.

Violating this law is a criminal offense. Stacy clearly and unequivocally committed a crime. If knowingly committing a crime isn't bad faith, the judge basically asked, then what is?

Which opinion is right?  Both sides make good arguments. Stacy clearly committed a crime but avoided responsibility in a civil lawsuit in part because she committed the crime, which doesn't seem fair. On the flip side, Price never specifically asked Stacy her name at the scene, never called the police, and didn't even demand to see Stacy's driver's license. A minimal amount of investigation would have probably revealed that Stacy (not Sarah) was the driver.  

Ultimately, it doesn't matter who is morally right. Because legally, only one opinion matters, and it's the majority opinion.

The lesson from Price v. Gonzalez is this: Nothing's worse than losing your personal injury case, except maybe losing it before it even begins. 

About the Author

Brian C. Zuanich

I am the managing partner at Zuanich Law. I am a former prosecutor and insurance defense attorney, and have practiced law in state and federal courts for over a decade.

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