The Court of Appeals of Georgia (“Georgia Appellate Court”), in its decision dated January 3, 2020, applied the relation-back doctrine in ruling that the trial court had abused its discretion in refusing to allow the widow be added to the Georgia medical malpractice wrongful death lawsuit after the applicable statute of limitations had expired.
The estate of the decedent and the decedent’s children filed a Georgia medical malpractice wrongful death lawsuit alleging that the defendants were medically negligent in treating the decedent after he was transported to a hospital emergency room by ambulance on July 20, 2014 because he began to bleed from the area where he received weekly dialysis treatments. The decedent was admitted to the intensive care unit and died three days later.
On July 22, 2016, the plaintiffs sued several of the decedent’s medical providers for wrongful death and other claims. Although the decedent was married at the time of his death, his widow initially elected not to participate in the lawsuit.
The defendants moved for summary judgment on the wrongful death claim, arguing that the claim could not proceed without the widow as a plaintiff. On July 24, 2018, well after the two-year limitation period governing the plaintiffs’ claims ended (OCGA § 9-3-33), the plaintiffs filed a motion to add or substitute the decedent’s widow as a plaintiff. In December 2018, the widow also moved to intervene in the litigation. The trial court rejected these efforts, concluding that the attempts to add the widow as a party “came long after the statute of limitations had expired,” and the widow was “not entitled to have her case relate back to the time of [the complaint’s] initial filing.” The trial court further found that the wrongful death claim “was not filed by the appropriate party.”
Georgia Appellate Court Decision
An amendment adding a plaintiff to a lawsuit after expiration of the limitation period relates back to the original complaint when: (1) the amendment arises out of the conduct, transaction, or occurrence set forth or attempted to be set forth in the original complaint; (2) an identity of interests exists between the old and new parties such that relation back will not prejudice the defendant; and (3) no prejudicial, unexcused delay or laches has occurred. Mere delay in filing a motion to amend is not enough to warrant the denial of such a motion. Thus, while laches and unexcused delay may bar a proposed amendment, the mere fact that an amendment is offered late in the case is not enough to bar it if the other party is not prejudiced.
In the case it was deciding, the Georgia Appellate Court stated: “The plaintiffs’ motion to add Seay’s widow to the wrongful death litigation met these relation-back requirements. The proposed amendment would not have altered the substance of the wrongful death claim or changed the underlying circumstances set forth in the original complaint. It simply sought to incorporate the widow as a necessary party to the wrongful death action. Under these circumstances, the widow’s claim “clearly arose out of the same occurrence as that alleged in the original complaint – i.e., the death of [Seay] as a proximate result of the alleged negligence of [the defendants]” … Moreover, an identity of interests exists between the plaintiffs and Seay’s widow. The children and the estate would have been wrongful death claimants in other circumstances. See OCGA §§ 51-4-2 (a), 51-4-5 (a). And a surviving spouse who brings a wrongful death action under OCGA § 51-4-2 (a) “acts both as an individual and as a representative of any children of the deceased.””
The Georgia Appellate Court further stated “there is no evidence of prejudice to the defendants or dilatory tactics by the plaintiffs. The original complaint was filed within the applicable statute of limitation, and the plaintiffs admitted in their motion to add Seay’s widow that she initially did not want to participate in the lawsuit, but later changed her mind … the loss of a statute of limitation defense is not the type of prejudice necessary to foreclose such amendment.” Furthermore, “we have previously found relation back of an amendment appropriate where the initial wrongful death claimant lacked standing and amendment was necessary to add the proper party plaintiff to the suit.”
The Georgia Appellate Court therefore held: “Because the plaintiffs’ proposed amendment adding Seay’s widow to the litigation related back to the timely-filed original complaint, the trial court abused its discretion in refusing to include her as a plaintiff.”
Source Seay v. Valdosta Kidney Clinic, LLC, A19A1992.
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