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Maria Kubal, et al v. Discount Tire.Com et al

August 23, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Irma E. GONZALEZUnited States District Judge


Before the Court are Defendants Michelin North America, Inc. ("Michelin") and Don Sanderson Ford, Inc. ("Sanderson")'s motions to dismiss Plaintiffs' First Amended Complaint as time-barred under California's statutes of limitation. [See Doc. Nos. 3, 6.] For the reasons below, the Court DENIES Defendants' motions.


On November 5, 2009, Andrew Kubal died in an automobile accident in Winterhaven, California, and on October 27, 2011, his wife and two children, Plaintiffs Maria Kubal, Andrew Kubal, Jr., and Mary Ann Kubal, respectively, filed a complaint in Imperial County Superior Court asserting claims of negligence and products liability against certain named defendants (but not Michelin or Sanderson) as well as a number of unnamed Doe defendants. [See Doc. No. 1.] On November 3, 2011, Plaintiffs filed a similar complaint in the Superior Court of Maricopa County, Arizona, (the "Arizona complaint") against a similar array of defendants, but additionally Michelin and Sanderson. [See, e.g., Doc. Nos. 6, 12.] The Arizona complaint was voluntarily dismissed on March 20, 2012. [See id.]

On April 24, 2012, Plaintiffs filed their First Amended Complaint in Imperial County Superior Court, adding Michelin and Sanderson. [See Doc. No. 1 at 9.] On June 8, 2012, Defendants removed to this Court. [Doc. No. 1.] On June 15, 2012, Michelin filed a motion to dismiss the complaint as time-barred. [Doc. No. 3.] On June 18, 2012, Sanderson filed its own motion to dismiss the complaint as time-barred. [Doc. No. 6.] Plaintiffs filed oppositions to Defendants' motions on July 17, 2012. [Doc. Nos. 12, 13.] Defendants filed replies on July 23, 2012. [Doc. Nos. 14, 16.]


Dismissal on statute of limitations grounds is proper only if untimeliness appears beyond doubt from face of the complaint. Supermail Cargo, Inc. v. U.S., 68 F.3d 1204, 1206-1207 (9th Cir. 1995).*fn1 In diversity cases, both "the length of the limitations period, and closely related questions of tolling and application, are to be governed by state law." Wilson v. Garcia, 471 U.S. 261, 269 (1985) (emphasis in original), and thus where, as here, a district court "borrows the statute of limitations from California State law, California's procedure for relation back in the suing of fictitious defendants controls." Provencio v. Vasquez, 258 F.R.D. 626, 631 (E.D. Cal. 2009) (citing Cabrales v. County of Los Angeles, 875 F.2d 765, 768 (9th Cir. 1989)). In so borrowing, "it is the duty of [district court] to ascertain from all the available data what the state law is and apply it . . . however much the state rule may have departed from prior decisions of the federal courts." West v. American Tel. & Tel. Co., 311 U.S. 223, 236-37 (1940).

Under California law, Plaintiff's claims are subject to a two-year statute of limitations. See Cal. Code Civ. P. § 335.1. As to relation back, "the general rule is that an amended complaint that adds a new defendant does not relate back to the date of filing the original complaint and the statute of limitations is applied as of the date the amended complaint is filed, not the date the original complaint is filed." Woo v. Superior Court, 75 Cal.App.4th 169, 176 (1999). But "[a] recognized exception to the general rule is the substitution under Section 474 of a new defendant for a fictitious Doe defendant named in the original complaint as to whom a cause of action was stated in the original complaint." Id. (citing Cal Code Civ. P. § 474 ("section 474")). Where section 474 applies, "the amended complaint substituting a new defendant for a fictitious Doe defendant filed after the statute of limitations has expired is deemed filed as of the date the original complaint was filed." Woo, 75 Cal.App.4th at 176(citing Austin v. Massachusetts Bonding & Ins. Co., 56 Cal.2d 596, 599 (1961)).

Here, it is undisputed both that the Plaintiff's original complaint was timely and alleged Doe defendants in accordance with section 474. It is further undisputed that Michelin and Sanderson were named in Plaintiff's First Amended Complaint, which was filed within the relation back period potentially afforded by section 474. [See, e.g., Doc. No. 6 at 2-5.] The only dispute is whether section 474 in fact applies to relate the First Amended Complaint back to the filing of the original complaint. [Id.] Defendants argue section 474 does not apply for two reasons:

1. Defendants were not expressly substituted for Doe defendants; and 2. Plaintiffs purportedly knew of the Defendants as of the original complaint's filing. [Id.]*fn2 As discussed below, the Court finds neither reason persuasive here and thus Defendants' motions to dismiss are DENIED.

1. Section 474 Applies Even Without Express Substitution

Defendants argue that section 474 is inapplicable because Plaintiff failed to expressly substitute Defendants for Doe defendants, relying primarily on the Ninth Circuit's decision in Anderson v. Allstate Insurance Co., 630 F.2d 677 (9th Cir. 1980). [See, e.g, Doc. Nos. 14 at 6-7; 16 at 4-5.] In Andersen, the Ninth Circuit, surveying then existing California decisions, noted the sentiment that "'some discipline in pleading is still essential'" and held that a "district court was not clearly wrong" in concluding amendment did not relate back where newly-named defendants were added in an amended pleading, rather that expressly substituted for Doe defendants. See Anderson, 630 F.2d at 683 (quotingDefendants' other primary authority, Ingram v. Superior Court, 98 Cal.App.3d 483, 491 (1979)).

Since Anderson, however, California courts have been more lenient in applying the requirements of section 474. See, e.g., Woo, 75 Cal.App.4th at 176 (noting "the [California] Supreme Court's liberal attitude toward allowing amendments of pleadings to avoid harsh results imposed by a statute of limitations"); General Motors Corp. v. Superior Court, 48 Cal. App.4th 580, 593 (1996) ("the Supreme Court and the Courts of Appeal [of California] are uniform in their view that section 474 is to be liberally construed.") (collecting cases); Barrows v. Am. Motors Corp., 144 Cal.App.3d 1, 7 (1983) ("the California Courts have been very liberal in permitting the amendment of pleadings to bring in a defendant previously sued by fictitious name."); Rowland v. Superior Court, 171 Cal.App.3d 1214, 1216 (1985) (acknowledging California's "well-established policy of liberally allowing amendment to avoid the bar of the statute of limitations."); McOwen v. Grossman, 153 Cal.App.4th 937, 942 (2007) ("the liberal interpretation of section 474 . . . is now well-established.").

Under this liberal approach, California courts allow relation back even where plaintiffs fail to strictly comply with section 474's Doe substitution procedure. See, e.g., Woo, 75 Cal.App.4th at 176 (courts "have been lenient in permitting" relation back notwithstanding "noncompliance with the party substitution requirements of section 474"). Indeed, the court in Woo, faced with the very situation presented here, held that claims against a new defendant first named in an amended complaint still relate back to the original complaint even where plaintiff has made no attempt to substitute for a previously named fictitious Doe defendant. See id. Thus, current California interpretation runs directly contrary to Defendants' contentions; failure to substitute is not ...

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