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Farmer-Celey v. State Farm Insurance Co.

Court of Appeals of Columbia District

July 13, 2017

Evelyn Farmer-Celey, Appellant,
v.
State Farm Insurance Company, and Mark Pray, Appellees.

          Submitted June 16, 2015

         Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CAV-10158-11) (Hon. Anthony C. Epstein and Hon. Stuart G. Nash, Trial Judges)

          Craig D. Miller and Matthew P. Tsun were on the brief for appellant.

          O'Neil S. King and Erin A. Hockensmith were on the brief for appellee Mark Pray.

          Before Fisher and Thompson, Associate Judges, and Ruiz, Senior Judge.

          RUIZ, SENIOR JUDGE.

         Appellant Evelyn Farmer-Celey brought a negligence action after she was injured in an automobile accident allegedly caused by appellee Mark Pray, who was insured by State Farm Insurance Company. Pray moved for summary judgment, arguing that appellant's amended complaint, which was filed after the limitations period elapsed, did not relate back to the first, timely complaint. The trial court agreed and dismissed the complaint. We reverse and remand.

         I.

         Appellant's complaint alleged that on January 1, 2009, at the intersection of Southern Avenue and 13th Place, Southeast, Pray's vehicle struck the vehicle in which appellant was a passenger from behind. As a result of the collision, appellant suffered injuries to her back.

         The complaint was filed on December 27, 2011, a few days before the limitations period expired on January 1, 2012. Appellant, who was proceeding pro se and is in forma pauperis, styled the caption of the complaint identifying the defendant as "State Farm Ins. Co. for Mark Pray, et al."[1] It appears Pray was in custody at the time. Appellant asserted in a motion and in an affidavit that she named two defendants in her first pro se complaint but that because she did not know Pray's address, only State Farm's address was noted on the complaint. State Farm represented in a motion to the court that it did not know Pray's address at the time. According to appellant's affidavit and motion, State Farm requested that she forward all documents to it because it is Pray's "authorized agent and legal representative."

         On February 21, 2012, State Farm filed a motion to dismiss the claim against it, arguing that in this jurisdiction negligence actions must proceed directly against the tortfeasor, not the insurer, and that "Pray, the alleged tortfeasor, was never named as a defendant." Appellant responded by filing a motion for leave to amend the complaint to correct the ambiguity caused by her "administrative error." The trial court gave leave, on March 12, 2012, and ruled that "with the change in defendant" the amended complaint should be filed by March 23, and a new summons obtained, both of which needed to be served on Pray pursuant to Superior Court Civil Rule 4, because service of the initial complaint on State Farm did not suffice.

         On May 9, 2012, appellant filed an amended complaint. The caption identified Pray as a defendant, "c/o Attorney & Legal Representative State Farm Ins. Co."[2] State Farm was also separately identified as a defendant. The trial court effectuated service[3] on both Pray and State Farm.[4] The amended complaint was left with Pray's mother, at her address in the District of Columbia; after no answer was filed, the trial court entered a default judgment against Pray. Upon learning of the default judgment, Pray successfully moved to vacate and to quash the service of process by arguing that delivery of the pleading at his mother's address was insufficient because he was not residing there as he was then imprisoned in Pennsylvania. It was through this motion that the trial court and appellant first learned where Pray was incarcerated. Pray was then served with the amended complaint at the place of his incarceration.

         On August 12, 2013, Pray filed a Rule 12 (b)(6) motion to dismiss, arguing that the amended complaint had added him as a defendant and was filed outside of the statute of limitations period. He claimed that he did not have notice of the initial complaint during the limitations period. Pray did not simultaneously raise a Rule 12 (b)(5) (insufficiency of service of process) motion arguing that the amended complaint was not properly served at the prison.

         The trial court denied Pray's motion to dismiss on August 30, 2013, reasoning that it could not conclude, based only on the complaint, that Pray did not have timely notice, but stated that Pray could raise the statute of limitations defense on summary judgment. After completion of discovery, Pray moved for summary judgment on March 24, 2014, arguing that the amended complaint was time-barred. The trial court granted Pray's motion on July 7, 2014, concluding that appellant's amended complaint, filed outside of the limitations period, changed a party by substituting Pray as a defendant for State Farm and did not ...


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