A lawsuit that misidentified an auto accident defendant may have suffered from a mere misnomer, but an accident victim was still out of court, a Fairfax County judge ruled last month.
The case serves as a reminder for plaintiffs’ lawyers to take extra precautions if there is any question about the identity of the lawsuit target. The ruling by Circuit Judge Randy I. Bellows came in Sparks v. Lucas (VLW 018-8-027).
Patricia Sparks claimed she was injured when her car was rear-ended by another driven by Eddy Lucas on April 4, 2014. She had $10,000-$12,000 in medical bills, according to an attorney in the case.
Bellows described what happened based on testimony on the defendant’s plea in bar. The defendant driver said his name was “Jose Vasquez,” Sparks testified. He claimed to have no license or insurance card, but he said he was insured with his mother’s Allstate policy. He correctly identified his mother as Rosalba Vasquez.
Lucas – in a deposition – told a different story. He said he showed his license and insurance card, and did not know anyone named “Jose Vasquez.”
Sparks hired a lawyer and filed suit four days before the statute of limitations deadline naming “Jose Vasquez” as the defendant. The lawsuit was not served. The complaint was nonsuited in 2016. That initial lawyer became ill and the plaintiff was left to her own devices, according to her later attorney. Just before the next deadline, she filed the same lawsuit on her own, without counsel. That complaint also was not served.
Sparks then hired Mark P. Friedlander Jr. of McLean, who entered an appearance. He said he quickly discovered the real name of the defendant, amended the lawsuit and had it served.
“I came late to the dance,” Friedlander quipped.
Lucas was served with the amended complaint. There was no evidence he had been aware of the lawsuit before being served, Bellows wrote.
Plea in bar
Lucas responded with a plea in bar citing the statute of limitations. Sparks raised two arguments in opposition, one based on the misnomer statute, Va. Code § 8.01-6, and the other based on § 8.01-229(D) relying on the defendant’s purported deception. Neither saving statute applied, Bellows ruled after an evidentiary hearing.
Two rulings went against the defendant on the misnomer issue. Bellows found Sparks to be credible when she described Lucas giving the wrong name. The judge also concluded the two “Vasquez” lawsuits were misnomers. Sparks had sued the right person in the wrong name, Bellows concluded.
But, in order for a later suit to relate back to the date of the original pleading, the defendant or his agent must have received notice of the action within the proper limitations period. The “uncontradicted evidence is that Mr. Lucas did not learn of the lawsuit until 2017,” Bellows wrote.
On the deception issue, Bellows found “compelling evidence” that the wrong name was not intended to obstruct the filing of an action.
Lucas “gave the true name of his insurance company; he gave the true name of the policyholder; and, significantly, he gave his true familial relationship to the policyholder. In other words, the Defendant provided the Plaintiff accurate and truthful information that would lead directly back to himself, conduct inimical to a goal of obstructing the filing of an action,” Bellow wrote.
The judge also cited Allstate’s efforts to engage with Sparks, including phone calls and a letter to Sparks’ counsel. Allstate even paid for repairs to Sparks’ vehicle.
“Thus, this is not a situation where a Defendant and his insurance company were engaging in a scheme, or a course of conduct, to hide their involvement in, or responsibility for, an accident,” Bellows said.
Bellows distinguished a 2005 Virginia Supreme Court decision where a defendant took several affirmative steps to conceal his identity. Bellows sustained the plea in bar and dismissed the amended complaint.
“I did not agree with everything the judge found, but I agree with the outcome,” said Allstate staff counsel Janet W. Cochran, who represented Lucas.
Friedlander said the lesson is to do the research and then serve the defendant early.
“If you’re handling a rear-end collision, you’ve got to find out who the real defendant is. In other words, you’ve got to start serving it right away,” Friedlander said.