Naming the Right Plaintiff in a North Carolina Trip and Fall

hardwareIn Williams v. Advance Auto Parts, the North Carolina plaintiff appealed two orders that granted summary judgment to the defendants in a trip and fall case. He argued that the court should have allowed him to amend his complaint to name the correct defendant.

The case arose in 2012 when the plaintiff tripped and fell inside an auto parts store. He submitted his claim for injuries to the third-party administrator that administered the liability policy for the store. In a letter, the third-party administrator named its insured as the auto parts store and denied that the insured was negligent.

The plaintiff sued the defendant in October 2015, naming it incorrectly. In December, the plaintiff filed a notice to amend the complaint, providing a second name for the owner of the store. Civil summons were directed to both of the possible names.

The first defendant filed an answer to the original complaint, asking it to be dismissed under the North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure for a failure to state a claim. It also asked for summary judgment in the alternative on the grounds that it didn’t lease or maintain the premises identified in the plaintiff’s complaint. It filed a second summary judgment motion, arguing there was no duty to the plaintiff because it didn’t own the store, the statute of limitations had expired, and any attempted amendment wouldn’t relate back to the original complaint. To this motion, it attached an affidavit from its senior claims manager, who said the defendant was a holding company, and the other name was a subsidiary that owned and operated the store where the plaintiff had tripped and fallen. The first defendant also answered the amended complaint, asking for dismissal and summary judgment.

The defendant who’d been named in the second complaint answered the amended complaint and asked for dismissal, arguing that it was a separate legal entity and that the statute of limitations had expired. No evidence was attached to the motion.

The plaintiff opposed the first defendant’s motion for summary judgment. It submitted an affidavit from the plaintiff’s attorney and two exhibits. The affidavit described how the plaintiff’s attorney had tried to find the correct defendant and had used the claims administrator’s letter in order to search the corporate registry for the name. The attorney’s paralegal had confirmed the choice of name by Googling it and looking at the website.

The second defendant filed a memorandum that included multiple evidentiary exhibits. It also presented the court with an application for a North Carolina certificate of authority to show that the first defendant was a Delaware corporation. The first amendment later did the same.

Summary judgment was granted to the second defendant based on evidence it submitted from the Register of Deeds, showing that it was the corporate entity operating the retail store and that the statute of limitations had expired in October 2015, before the amended complaint was filed. The lower court determined that under Rule 15(c), there was no leeway to add a new party to an existing lawsuit except to correct a mistake in the party’s name. It found the amendment tried to bring in a new defendant, rather than just correct a mistake. The trial court also issued an order granting summary judgment to the first defendant on the original complaint.

The plaintiff argued that it had relied on the claims manager’s letter. However, the trial court found the letter did not show any effort to mislead or misrepresent the name of its insured. The plaintiff appealed, arguing that its amended complaint should have related back. In North Carolina, the statute of limitations for a personal injury claim is three years. The plaintiff could have amended the pleading once before an answer was filed but could only do so after the statute of limitations expired if the amendment related back.

The appellate court explained that a misnomer is a mistake in names that is technical. It is distinct from the wrong name of a legal entity that uses two names or a situation in which the plaintiff substitutes one legal entity for another. The appellate court found that the plaintiff’s amendment tried to substitute a legal entity for a different legal entity. The two named defendants were separate corporations. The appellate court also explained that equitable estoppel could be invoked only if the defendant had acted in a way that amounted to a false representation or concealment of material facts, knowing that the other party would rely on it. There was no evidence of that here, so summary judgment was proper.

It is crucial to name the right defendant in your trip and fall lawsuit. If you were injured by a dangerous condition in a retail store, the experienced Raleigh premises liability attorneys at Maurer Law may be able to help you recover compensation. Contact us at 919-229-8359 or via our online form.

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