Relation-Back Doctrine Applied, Reversing Jury Verdict against Manufacturer

Recently, the First Circuit affirmed the decision of the District of Massachusetts in granting manufacturer’s post-verdict motion to alter or amend judgment, reversing judgment entered upon a jury verdict, by applying the relation-back doctrine. Coons v. Industrial Knife Co., No. 09-1791, 2010 WL 3516849 (1st Cir. Sept. 10, 2010) [PDF]. Three years after William Coons (“Coons”) was injured by an industrial paper-cutting knife while on the job, he filed suit against A.F. Chapman Corporation who he alleged manufactured and distributed the the knife that caused his injuries. A year later, after pre-trial discovery, A.F. Chapman sought, and was granted, leave to file a third-party complaint against Industrial Knife, alleging that Industrial Knife was the manufacturer and distributor of the knife. Almost two years after filing his original complaint, Coons sought, and was granted, leave to amend his complaint to assert claims against Industrial Knife.

Industrial Knife answered, asserting the statute of limitations as a defense. Two years later, Industrial Knife filed a motion to dismiss based upon the statute of limitations. The District Court denied its motion as untimely and the case went before a jury. The jury found in favor of Coons, awarding him $350,000 in compensatory damages. At the close of Coons’ case, Industrial Knife moved for judgment as a matter of law based upon the statute of limitations; this motion was also renewed before the jury deliberated. The District Court denied these motions without prejudice.
Following the return of the jury verdict, Industrial Knife filed a motion to alter or amend the judgment, arguing that Coons’ claims against it were time-barred. The District Court agreed and entered judgment for Industrial Knife. Coons appealed. The First Circuit first found that since Coons’ claims against Industrial Knife were filed well after three years from the date of the accident — when the cause of action accrued, Coons could only prevail if his amended complaint against Industrial Knife “related back” to his original complaint that was filed within three years of the date of the accident. There are three requirements that must be met for an amended complaint to “relate back” to the original complaint when a new party is added — the claim must arise out of the same conduct, the new party must have had some notice, and new party either must have known or should have known that the action could have been brought against it.
The First Circuit agreed with Industrial Knife that it had no notice of the action within the applicable time frame. Success in making this argument was attained only after defense counsel persisted in making the argument throughout the life of the case. A teaching point for all defense counsel.

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