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Court clarifies on corrected complaints in Krupski cruise case

For civil procedure buffs, the Court this morning clarified the operation of Rule 15(c)(1)C) in cases in which a plaintiff sues the wrong defendant and seeks to amend her complaint after the statute of limitations has run.  The Court held that such an amendment “relates back” – in other words, is treated as if the original complaint had been filed with the correction – even if the plaintiff knew of the proper defendant’s existence earlier and delayed amending the complaint for a significant period of time.

The plaintiff in this case, Wanda Krupski, was injured on a cruise.  She bought her ticket from “Costa Cruise Lines, N.V.,” which is actually just the sales and marketing agent for the cruise line, a separate (although related) entity whose official name is “Costa Crociere S.p.A.” (”crociere” means “cruises” in Italian).  When Krupski filed her suit, she named Costa Cruise Lines as the sole defendant.  After the statute of limitations ran, Costa Cruise Lines moved for summary judgment on the ground that it wasn’t responsible for her injuries, because it was simply the sales agent.  After some further delay, Krupski sought to amend her complaint to identify the proper defendant, Costa Crociere.

Such amendments are governed by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15.  As applicable here, the rule permits an amendment to “relate back” to the original filing of the complaint (thereby avoiding the statute of limitations problem) so long as the new defendant “(i) received such notice of the action that it will not be prejudiced in defending on the merits; and (ii) knew or should have known that the action would have been brought against it, but for the mistake concerning the proper party’s identity.”

The lower courts held that Krupski did not satisfy these requirements because she knew of the existence of Costa Crociere (which was identified on her ticket stub), making her failure to sue that company a deliberate decision rather than a “mistake.”  The courts also decided that, in any event, she waited too long to make the amendment.

Writing for the Court, Justice Sotomayor explained that both conclusions were inconsistent with the text of the rule.  A plaintiff can know that a party exists, she explained, without knowing that it is the “proper party” to sue.  Here, Krupski may have known of Costa Crociere’s existence, but she mistakenly believed that Costa Cruise was the corporation that operated the cruises (and therefore was the party legally liable for her injuries).  Moreover, the Court held, nothing in the rule sets a time limit for correcting such a mistake, in marked contrast to other parts of the same rule that permit other amendments to complaints only within a specified time.  Nor did the district court have any discretion about whether to permit the amendment (which it might have used to deny an unduly delayed amendment).  The rule lists the criteria the plaintiff has to meet; if she does, the amendment automatically relates back.

Justice Scalia wrote a brief concurrence, agreeing with the result and all of the Court’s reasoning except for the opinion’s occasional reliance on the notes of the advisory committee that drafted the rule, which he believes is akin to relying on legislative history.