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Florida Construction Law News

24APR 2017

The Time Machine Known as the Relation-Back Doctrine

by Sean L. Mullhall, Esq.

While considered procedural, the “relation back doctrine” has a substantive effect that can either be a life-saver or a frustration (depending on what side of the issue you are on).  The doctrine allows an amendment to a pleading, well after the original filing and service of that pleading, to relate back to the date of the original pleading.  So, for example, for a case filed in 2014, an amendment to a pleading filed in 2017 will be treated as if the amendment was part of the original pleading filed in 2014.  The doctrine is well-established in both Florida and federal law.

Florida law is very liberal towards a party who wishes to amend a pleading to assert a claim or defense that the party failed to include in its original pleading.  This failure may be due to oversight or development of an issue through discovery that gives rise to the new claim or defense.  Reliance on the relation back doctrine becomes critical when the statute of limitations for filing a claim or defense has expired.  This is where the doctrine either becomes a life-saver or a frustration as the proposed amendment may now be the key to success or failure of a party’s case.

Recently, the Florida Supreme Court clarified a long-running split between appellate courts in Florida with its opinion in Kopel v. Kopel.[1] Until the Court’s ruling in Kopel, Florida appellate courts had two different views of the doctrine.  One view was that a party could not assert a new, different, or distinct cause of action in an amended pleading if that claim would be barred by the applicable statute of limitations.  The other view tracked the precise language of the applicable rule and held that a new and distinct cause of action could be added in an amended pleading, as long as the new claim arose out of the same conduct, transaction or occurrence.  Put another way, this view held that if the new claim was based on the same factual allegations asserted in the original pleading, then the new claim would be allowed, even if made after the expiration of the statute of limitations period.

In Kopel, the Florida Supreme Court adopted the latter view permitting a new claim to be added after the statute of limitations period has expired.  The Court reasoned that, as long as the opposing party had notice of the basis and factual support for the new claim through the original pleading, the amendment should be allowed and will relate back to the filing date of the original pleading.[2]

This doctrine may certainly raise its head in construction cases, where at the outset of a claim there may be an absence of documents, and new claims often arise out of facts learned in discovery.  The key in advancing the doctrine for your needs or defending against it lies in the factual allegations of the original pleading regarding the transaction(s) or event(s) that gave rise to the litigation to begin with.[3]  If defeating an amendment is critical to the defense of a claim, a party should be prepared to litigate the issue as soon as the amendment is proposed and throughout the litigation.

If you have any questions regarding the relation back doctrine, please do not hesitate to contact one of the members of CSK’s Construction Group.

[1] Kopel v. Kopel, 42 Fla. L. Weekly S26 (Fla. Jan. 26, 2017).

[2] See also Caduceus Props., LLC. v. Graney, 137 So. 3d 987 (Fla. 2014).

[3] Whether or not an amended pleading relates back to the date of the original complaint is a question of law and an appellate court will therefore review the matter in its totality to determine if the lower court should have denied leave to add the proposed new claim, dismissed it, or granted summary judgment in favor of the opposing party on the basis of the statute of limitations

Posted By Sean L. Mullhall, Esq.

Sean L. Mulhall is an Associate in CSK’s Construction Group and practices in the Jacksonville office. Mr. Mulhall’s practice focuses on nursing home health care, construction law, medical malpractice, and general civil litigation. Mr. Mulhall has sixteen years of experience defending clients in civil litigation. He has represented clients in state and federal trial courts throughout the state of Florida during his career, and has handled appeals in the Florida and federal appellate courts.