Laurie Myers and her husband lived in a Millville apartment. Government Employees Insurance Co. v. Myers, No. A-2383-10 (App. Div. Aug. 22, 2011). Richard Chennette also rented an apartment on that property. On February 23, 2008, Chennette was moving out and his girlfriend, Alana Fanzo, was helping him and brought her car to move his possessions. When Myers and her husband saw Chennette moving out they confronted him about money that they believed he owed them. After Myers and Chennette argued, Chennette and Fanzo decided to leave. They got into Fanzo’s car, with Fanzo driving. As Fanzo was pulling out of the driveway, Chennettee opened his door, which struck Myers on the knee.
Myers thought that Fanzo’s vehicle was not insured. Therefore, she sought uninsured motorist benefits from her insurer, GEICO. On June 18, 2009, GEICO filed a declaratory judgment action disclaiming coverage and asserting that Myers’s injuries were the result of an uncovered, intentional assault. Myers filed a counter-claim for benefits. During Fanzo’s deposition on March 30, 2010, Myers’s attorney learned for the first time that State Farm insured Fanzo’s vehicle at the time of the incident. On July 1, the attorney received additional confirmation of State Farm’s coverage, and shortly thereafter Myers moved to amend her pleadings to add Fanzo as a third-party defendant.
At the trial level Myers conceded that the two-year statute of limitations for personal injuries would bar her claims against Fanzo unless the filing date of her third-party complaint related back to the date of her initial pleadings under Rule 4:9-3. The trial court denied Myers’s motion to file the third-party claim because she knew of Fanzo’s identity well before the statute of limitations expired. The Appellate Division affirmed.
Reviewing Rule 4:9-3, the “party-misidentification rule,” the Appellate Division explained that it allowed an amended pleading that contained claims against a new party to relate back to the date of the original pleading – and thereby avoid a statute of limitations bar – if the party seeking leave satisfied three requirements: 1) the claim in the amended complaint arose out of the conduct or occurrence at issue in the original complaint; 2) the new defendant had adequate notice of the initial action so as not to be prejudiced by being brought into the case as a defendant; and 3) the new defendant knew, or should have known, that but for the misidentification of the proper party the action would have been brought against him or her. Like the trial court, the Appellate Division focused its analysis on the third requirement.
The Appellate Division recounted that in previous cases that allowed a party leave to amend because of misidentification, “the party seeking leave to amend had been mistaken as to the correct identity of the person responsible for her injuries.” After analyzing such precedent, the Appellate Division noted that they all involved situations where the party seeking to amend “believed that a particular person was responsible for her injuries when, in fact, another person was.”
In contrast to those situations, the Appellate Division emphasized that here “there was no mistake regarding the driver’s identity. Myers was aware on the day of the incident that Fanzo was driving the car when Chennette opened the passenger-side door into Myers’s knee. Instead, Myers was mistaken as to whether Fanzo had insurance that could pay any judgment rendered against her.” Moreover, the court stressed that Myers did not fail to join Fanzo in the suit before the statute of limitations expired because she did not know Fanzo’s identity but rather because she was unaware that she had a viable claim against Fanzo due to State Farm’s coverage. Accordingly, the court concluded that “[t]hat is not the type of mistake Rule 4:9-3 was designed to address, and the trial court did not err in denying Myers leave to amend her pleadings.”