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Florida First DCA rules that relation back doctrine applied to amended complaint in wrongful death case involving state prison inmate, permitting filing after expiration of statute of limitations

On May 21, 2019,  in Halveland v. Florida Department of Corrections, No. 1D18-1822, the Florida First DCA reversed a trial court ruling which had denied a plaintiff’s motion to amend her complaint filed on behalf of the estate of her son, a deceased Florida Department of Corrections inmate.  The plaintiff, as personal representative of the deceased inmate’s estate, filed her initial complaint against the Department of Corrections and individual correctional officers alleging wrongful death and the intentional infliction of emotional distress.  The plaintiff alleged that the officers failed to timely render medical aid to the inmate during a multi-day period in which he suffered beatings by another inmate which ultimately led to his death.  The trial court dismissed the complaint as time-barred pursuant to the First DCA’s decision in Green v. Cottrell, 172 So. 3d 1009 (Fla. 1st DCA 2015), which concluded that claims relating to inmate care are governed by section 95.11(5)(g), Florida Statutes, providing a one-year time limit for “an action brought by or on behalf of a prisoner, as defined in s. 57.085, relating to the conditions of the prisoner's confinement.” While the appeal of the decision was pending, the Florida Supreme Court  reversed

the First DCA’s Green decision, finding Florida’s general 4-year statute of limitations applies to cases in which a prisoner files an action alleging that he suffered physical injury due to the negligent or wrongful acts or omissions of the employees of a government entity.  Green v. Cottrell, 204 So. 3d 22, 29 (Fla. 2016). After the instant case was remanded to the trial court consistent with the Florida Supreme Court decision, the plaintiff sought to amend the complaint  to add counts against the officers and the Department for cruel and unusual punishment pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983.  However, if calculated from the date of the incident, the statute of limitations on that count had expired, and the trial court concluded that  the amended complaint did not relate back because it contained factually distinct allegations that did not relate back to the “sparse” allegations in the original complaint.  On appeal, the First DCA disagreed. The Court noted that under Florida law an amendment relates back “[w]hen the claim or defense asserted in the amended pleading arose out of the conduct, transaction, or occurrence set forth or attempted to be set forth in the original pleading . . . .’” Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.190(c) (emphasis added). The Court quoted from Kopel v. Kopel, 229 So. 3d 812, 815 (Fla. 2017): “as long as the initial complaint gives the defendant fair notice of the general factual scenario or factual underpinning of the claim, amendments stating new legal theories can relate back. . . . This is true even where the legal theory of recovery has changed or where the original and amended claims require the assertion of different elements.”