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Dismissal Granted Where Claim Against Party Added After the Statue of Limitations Did Not Relate Back to Filing of Original Complaint

January 13, 2023

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In <a href=""><em>Coleman v. Western Oilfields Supply Co.</em>,</a>, the Judge Brann of the Middle District of Pennsylvania rejected the application of the relation back doctrine and granted a Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss based on the two-year statute of limitations.  Willie Coleman was injured while setting up a gas well at Chief Oil &amp; Gas, LLC’s well pad in Wyalusing, Pennsylvania.  Evergreen Oilfield Solutions, LLC and Western Oilfield Supply Co. were allegedly responsible for “containment” at the well pad which involves “preventing containment of the grounds by laying down a cloth or other substance that covers the grounds to prevent . . . contamination.”  Around midnight on March 19, 2019, Coleman and a coworker were carrying a heavy pipe on their shoulders and began to move it through the well pad.  Coleman’s foot fell into a hole or depression causing him to trip, resulting in a severely fractured ankle.  Because the hole or depression was covered by a containment cloth, Coleman was unable to see it before he stepped in it.

Plaintiffs filed a Complaint on January 15, 2021 against Chief and Western, alleging that both entities were responsible for containment at the well site.  Chief filed a Motion to Dismiss which the court converted to a Motion to Dismiss and then granted.  With leave of Court, Plaintiffs filed an Amended Complaint on May 12, 2022, that for the first time, named Evergreen as a Defendant, alleging that it was responsible for containment at the well pad.  Evergreen filed a Motion to Dismiss based on the two-year statute of limitations.  Plaintiffs responded by arguing that their claims against Evergreen related back to original complaint, which was filed within the limitations period and was therefore timely.

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure Rule 15(c) permits an amended complaint that adds a new party to relate back to the filing of the original Complaint if three requirements are meant:

(1)          The claims in the amended complaint must arise out of the same occurrences set forth in the original complaint;

(2)          The party to be brought in by amendment must have received notice of the action within 120 days of its institution; and

(3)          The party to be brought in by amendment must have known, or should have known, that the action would have been brought against the party by for a mistake concerning its identity.

Although Evergreen conceded that the first requirement had been met in that the claims in the Amended Complaint arose out of the same occurrence as the original Complaint, it disputed that it had received notice of the original action within 120 days or knew or should have known that the action would have been brought against it but for a mistake concerning its identity.

Plaintiffs produced no evidence of actual notice with 120 days of the initiation of the original Complaint.  The Third Circuit has endorsed two methods of imputing notice where a plaintiff cannot demonstrate that a defendant had actual notice of the suit against it.  First is the “shared attorney” method whereby notice is imputed when the originally-named party, and the party that is being added are represented by the same attorney, the attorney is likely to have communicated to the latter party that he may very well be joined in the action.  Second is the “identity of interest” method whereby the parties are so closely related in their business operations or other activities that the institution of action against one served to provide notice of the litigation to the other.  Judge Brann held that Plaintiffs had failed to meet their burden of establishing either actual or imputed notice of the action within 120 days of filing of the original complaint.  None of the Defendants shared attorneys or law firms, and there was no evidence that there was any special relationship between any of the current of former Defendants.

Having failed to establish the second prong of the relation back test, Judge Brann held the Plaintiffs’ claims against Evergreen were barred by the statute of limitations and therefore granted its Motion to Dismiss.

Thanks to James Scott for his assistance with this post. Should you have any questions, please contact <a href="">Tom Bracken</a>.

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