Supreme Court Clarifies Rule on Amending Complaints to Name New Defendants After Expiration of Statute of Limitations

March 7, 2014

In a unanimous opinion, the Tennessee Supreme Court has held that state law allows a plaintiff to add a defendant whose involvement was raised by the original defendant, even when the plaintiff was aware of the new defendant before the statute of limitations expired.

The case involves Michael Becker, who was riding in a truck driven by his son when the truck hit a light pole. Mr. Becker was injured and filed a lawsuit in Hamilton County against Ford Motor Company, the manufacturer of the truck. Ford transferred the case to federal court. Then, in its answer to Mr. Becker’s complaint, Ford named the son as the person who caused the accident.

Mr. Becker asked the federal court for permission to amend his complaint to add his son as an additional defendant. By this time, the legal deadline for filing the suit had passed. However, a state law allows plaintiffs to file suit against new defendants who are named by the original defendant, despite the expiration of the statute of limitations.

The federal court was unsure whether Mr. Becker could add his son as a defendant because Mr. Becker was previously aware of his son’s involvement in the accident. Accordingly, the federal court turned to the Tennessee Supreme Court, asking whether the state law only applied to defendants who were unknown to the plaintiff prior to the expiration of the statute of limitations.

Interpreting Tennessee Code Annotated section 20-1-119, the Supreme Court held that the law’s plain language does not require that the new defendant be unknown to the plaintiff prior to the expiration of the statute of limitations. Mr. Becker was therefore permitted to file suit against the son.

To read the opinion in Becker v. Ford Motor Company, authored by Justice William C. Koch, Jr., visit the Opinions section of TNCourts.gov.