In Coons v. Indus. Knife Co., -- F.3d ----, 2010 WL 3516849 (1st Cir. Sept. 10, 2010), plaintiff injured his hand while changing an industrial paper-cutting knife. Three years later, he sued the knife manufacturer and distributor in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts under various product liability theories. Over a year later, defendant discovered new evidence that a different entity was the actual manufacturer and filed a third-party claim against that entity. After the new party filed its own third-party claim against another party in the supply chain, plaintiff was granted leave to amend his complaint to add claims against both new thirdparty defendants. After the original defendant left the case, the new defendants moved to dismiss under the applicable three-year Massachusetts statute of limitations. The court denied the motion as untimely, and the case proceeded to trial.
At the close of plaintiff’s case, defendants moved for judgment as a matter of law on the statute of limitations ground. The court denied the motion, but without prejudice. After the jury returned a verdict finding only one defendant liable and awarding damages, the remaining defendant filed a motion to alter or amend the judgment, again arguing the claims were barred by the limitations statute. The court found that the defense was meritorious and entered judgment for the defendant, at which time plaintiff appealed.
First, the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit dismissed plaintiff’s argument that defendant had waived the limitations defense by failing to raise it through a pre-trial motion or a renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law. The court held the defense was pleaded in defendant’s answer and thus a pre-trial motion was not required. The court also agreed with the district court that defendant’s motion for a new trial could be treated as a renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law.
On the merits of the limitations defense, the court noted that because plaintiff filed his amended complaint well outside the three-year limitations period, the claims against defendant were time-barred unless the amended complaint “related back” to the original complaint. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(c) allows relation back either under a “federal test” set forth in the rule or when the law that provides the applicable statute of limitations – here, Massachusetts law – allows relation back. One element of the federal test requires that the new defendant have received notice of the action within 120 days after the complaint is filed so that the new defendant is not prejudiced in defending on the merits. Here, the court held that defendant did not receive notice of the action within the required time period. Further, the court held plaintiff had forfeited his state law relation back argument by failing to raise it in opposition to defendant’s post-judgment motion. Although plaintiff argued it was defendant’s burden, as part of its statute of limitations defense, to demonstrate the claim did not relate back, the court held defendant had satisfied its burden upon demonstrating that the amended complaint was filed outside the limitations period, shifting the burden to plaintiff to demonstrate that the statute of limitations did not apply.