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Civil Rule Prohibits Using Placeholder Names When Defendant is Known in Case

2009-0580.  Erwin v. Bryan, Slip Opinion No. 2010-Ohio-2202.
Tuscarawas App. No. 08-CA-28, 2009-Ohio-758.  Judgment of the court of appeals reversed, and judgment of the trial court reinstated.
Lundberg Stratton, O'Connor, O'Donnell, Lanzinger, and Grendell, JJ., concur.
Pfeifer, J., dissents.
Brown, C.J., not participating.
Diane V. Grendell, J., of the Eleventh Appellate District, sitting for Cupp, J.
Opinion: http://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/rod/docs/pdf/0/2010/2010-Ohio-2202.pdf

Video clip View oral argument video of this case.

(May 25, 2010) The Supreme Court of Ohio today ruled that the rules of civil procedure do not allow a claimant to designate defendants using fictitious names as placeholders in a complaint filed within the statute-of-limitations period and then identify, name, and personally serve those defendants after the limitations period has elapsed.

The case centered on a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Cora Erwin, whose husband, Russell, died July 15, 2004, several days after his release from the hospital.

On July 10, 2006, within the two-year statute of limitations (time limit) after Mr. Erwin’s death, Mrs. Erwin filed a wrongful death lawsuit naming as defendants Dr. Bryan, Union Hospital, and five unnamed “John Doe” defendants described in the complaint as other physicians unknown to Mrs. Erwin at the time of filing whose acts or omissions may have contributed to Mr. Erwin’s death. On July 15, 2006, the statute of limitations for filing a wrongful death claim arising from Mr. Erwin’s death expired.

On June 29, 2007, after her attorneys had deposed Dr. Bryan, Mrs. Erwin sought leave to amend her complaint to substitute the name of Dr. William Swoger, a physician who had been involved in the intubation of her husband during his hospitalization, for one of the “John Doe” defendants. The trial judge granted leave to amend the complaint, and Dr. Swoger and his medical practice, Union Internal Medical Specialties Inc. (UIMS), were served with copies of the amended complaint naming them as defendants.  Dr. Swoger and UIMS subsequently filed a motion for summary judgment dismissing them as defendants on the basis that Mrs. Erwin had not asserted claims against them until after the July 15, 2006 statute of limitations had expired. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Dr. Swoger and UIMS based on the statute of limitations.

Mrs. Erwin appealed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment, arguing that because she had included then-unknown John Doe physicians as defendants in her original and timely complaint, Civil Rule 15(D) allowed her to amend that complaint within one year after the original filing date by substituting the name of an actual defendant for a John Doe defendant. The 5th District Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment and reinstated Mrs. Erwin’s claims against Dr. Swoger and UIMS.  The Supreme Court agreed to review the 5th District’s decision.

The majority opinion authored by Justice Terrence O’Donnell stated: “According to its unambiguous language, Civ.R. 15(D) provides that a plaintiff may designate a defendant in a complaint by any name and description when the plaintiff does not know the name of that party. Thus, Civ.R. 15(D) does not permit a plaintiff to designate a defendant by a fictitious name when the plaintiff actually knows the name of that defendant.

“Further, when a plaintiff designates a defendant by a fictitious name, Civ.R. 15(D) requies that the plaintiff provide a description of the defendant in the pleadings and aver in the complaint the fact that the plaintiff could not discover the name. The rule also directs that the summons contain the words ‘name unknown’ and be personally served on the defendant,” he continued.

Justice O’Donnell pointed out that “To construe the rule to allow the use of placeholders for unidentified defendants would eliminate the statute of limitations for every cause of action. That is not the purpose of Civ.R. 15(D), and any indication that such a use is sanctioned by the court is disavowed.”

The Supreme Court reversed the appeals court judgment and reinstated the judgment of the trial court granting summary judgment in favor of Swoger and UIMS.

Justice O’Donnell’s opinion was joined by Justices Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, Maureen O’Connor, Judith Ann Lanzinger, and 11th District Court of Appeals Judge Diane V. Grendell, who sat in place of Justice Robert R. Cupp.

In his dissent, Justice Paul E. Pfeifer cited Chief Justice Celebrezze’s dissent in a 1985 Supreme Court case: “‘Clearly, Rule 15(C) was designed to assist plaintiffs by allowing amendments to relate back to the time of the original filing and was not intended to add yet another obstacle in the path to the courthouse ‘Because of relation back, the intervening statute of limitation does not interfere with the opportunity to amend.’ I can’t offer a more coherent or concise explanation as to why the court is as wrong today as it was in 1985.”

Chief Justice Eric Brown did not participate in the Court’s deliberations or decision in the case.

Rocco D. Potenza, 330.670.7300, for Dr. William Swoger & Union Internal Medicine Specialties Inc.

Paul W. Flowers, 216.344.9393, for Cora Erwin and Estate of Russell Erwin.

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