Volume 35:1 (Summer 2011)

The United States Supreme Court in Krupski v. Costa Crociere, S.p.A. Creates Additional Ambiguity in the Relation Back Doctrine


Stacy H. Farmer


Introduction: Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(c), also known as the relation back doctrine, was created “to balance the interests of the defendant protected by the statute of limitations with the preference expressed in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure in general, and Rule 15 in particular, for resolving disputes on their merits.” The relation back doctrine specifically addresses a plaintiff’s attempt to amend a pleading after the expiration of the statute of limitations. To timely file a complaint, it must be filed before the expiration of the statute of limitations. In some cases, however, a plaintiff may attempt to amend a complaint after the statute of limitation expires. For this to occur, the amended complaint must relate back to the date of the original complaint. For an amended complaint to relate back, the defendant must have known or should have known that the claim would have been brought against him absent the plaintiff’s mistake regarding the defendant’s identity. Additionally, the defendant’s knowledge of the plaintiff’s mistake must occur within the Rule 4(m) period. The Rule 4(m) period refers to the time limit for service of a defendant with the complaint and summons. Typically, for a suit to lawfully proceed, the defendant must be served “within 120 days after the complaint is filed [unless the court orders] that service be made within a specified time.” It is this final part of the relation back doctrine that allows the plaintiff to add defendants that were unnamed in the original complaint after the statute of limitations expires. For years, courts have examined whether the relation back doctrine should be broadly construed to include the addition of defendants unnamed in the original complaint or narrowly construed to allow only the substitution of unnamed defendants in the place of defendants named in the original complaint. Recently, the United States Supreme Court’s holding in Krupski v. Costa Crociere S.p.A. addressed this issue, and has affected lower courts’ treatment of cases involving these broader issues of the relation back doctrine concerning the interpretation of Rule 15(c)(1)(C).