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Georgia Supreme Court Ruling Means Lesser Restrictions on Relation Back Doctrine

In Oconee v. Cannon (February 1, 2021), the Supreme Court of Georgia addressed issues about timeliness of disclosure/discovery of information/mistake as to party sued and its impact on an effort to amend a complaint after a statute of limitations had run.

In 2015, Deputy Sanders of the Oconee County Sheriff's Office attempted to stop a Jeep SUV in which Jessica Cannon was a passenger. The SUV accelerated and a high-speed chase followed. Both the driver of the SUV and Jessica Cannon were killed in the crash. The Oconee County Sheriff, Scott Berry, met with Jessica Cannon's parents and informed them of their daughter's death.

The Cannons sent a timely anti litem notice to the Sheriff's Office and other government officials. In 2017, the Cannons filed a wrongful death suit naming Oconee County as the only defendant. The complaint alleged that at the time of the accident, Sanders was “acting in the scope and course of his employment as a police officer with the Oconee County Sheriff’s Office.” The County admitted that allegation but elsewhere denied that the County was liable for the actions of the deputy. In 2018, the County filed a motion for summary judgment arguing, among other things, that the deputy was not an employee of the County but of the Sheriff's Office and, thus, the County could not be held liable. The Cannons submitted a motion to substitute Sheriff Barry in his official capacity as defendant in place of the County and sought relief from the statute of limitations under OCGA § 9-11-15(c). The trial court granted the motion for summary judgment and denied the motion to substitute holding as a matter of law “there could be no mistake concerning the identity of Sheriff Barry” as a proper party --that is -- the employer of the deputy.

The Georgia Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's ruling as to the proper defendant but reversed the ruling on the relation back doctrine. On writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court of Georgia, the court ruled that the application of the relation back doctrine depends on whether the proper defendant knew or should have known that the action would have been brought against him but for the plaintiff's mistake. The court stated that previous case law indicating that the issue was whether the plaintiff's mistake was legal or factual and what the plaintiff knew or should have known did not properly construe and apply the statute.

The law provides generally that when a government actor is involved in an automobile accident and is sued, the agency for which he is working is to be substituted for that driver. Here, because the driver was not sued and only the County, no such automatic substitution would take place. Thus, the only named defendant was the County and the County was not the deputy’s employer -- so the lawsuit had been filed against the wrong entity and wrong employer. This is a mistake that is often made by plaintiffs’ lawyers who are unfamiliar with the operation of waiver of sovereign immunity and as to for whom government employees including deputies work.

As indicated the court of appeals affirmed the grant of summary judgment to the County but reversed the trial court on the denial of motion to substitute and relation back.

Relying on Krupski v Costa Crociere 560 US 538 (2010), the Supreme Court of Georgia embraced the reasoning used by the federal courts in interpreting the language found OCGA § 9-11-15(c). The Supreme Court of Georgia vacated the court of appeals ruling on relation back and did so directing that the case be remanded to the trial court to apply the proper standard -- which is whether the defendant knew or should have known that he would have been named as a party but for the plaintiff’s mistake.

It is not unusual for a client report to indicate mistakes made by the plaintiff with regard to which party is sued or named. As such, it would be difficult indeed to conceive of a circumstance where a deputy is sued and the sheriff is not aware but for some mistake the sheriff would have been sued as the employer. The court rejected arguments by the County that the plaintiff's mistake about which party was the proper defendant was a legal mistake and must hold the consequences bar the relation back. The Court instead said the focus is the defendant's knowledge not the nature of the plaintiff's mistake in terms of whether the relation back doctrine applies.

In essence, a mistake by the plaintiff is not the most relevant analysis as to whether an attempt to amend to address such a mistake is proper; where the defendant knew or should have known that he or she would have been the party sued but for such mistake, relation back applies. The Court also pointed out that the relation back applies if Sheriff Barry in his official capacity knew or should have known prior to expiration of the statute of limitations that the mistake occurred prior to expiration of the statute of limitations.

So, in cases such as this, where the plaintiff makes the mistake of suing the County instead of suing the driver who would later be subject to substitution for his employer, the Sheriff, if the Sheriff knows about the mistake before the statute of limitations runs then the relation back doctrine will apply to an effort to substitute the Sheriff for the County. This ruling is contrary to practice under these relevant statutes for many years, but as Cannon is a unanimous decision, it is a new day.


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