The Supreme Court Rejects Formalistic Approach when the Plaintiff Names the Wrong Party

The Supreme Court Rejects Formalistic Approach when the Plaintiff Names the Wrong Party

In Krupski v. Costa Crociere S. P. A., the Supreme Court decided that an inadvertent failure to name the correct party did not close the courtroom door to the plaintiff, so long as the defendant actually knew that the controversy was pending, and that it would have been named except for the plaintiff’s mistake.

This shifting of the blame for the mistake in getting a party’s name right is in line with the decades’ long departure from very formalistic legal pleading requirements, a gradual but steady progress.  Still, missteps can doom cases.  For example, someone is named as a defendant, but the plaintiff does not know that the defendant is dead; if the estate is not brought in within a short time period, the claim is unenforceable.

In the case before the Supreme Court, a different, but even more common, variation was in play. A cruise ship passenger was hurt on board.  Her ticket required her to sue within a year and  limited her damages to $75,000.  While the back of the ticket identified the cruise ship owner as an Italian corporation called Costa Crociere S.P.A., the front of the ticket, and the marketing for the cruise, all referred to Costa Cruise Lines.   Costa Cruise Lines negotiated with the injured passenger, but when that was unsuccessful she filed suit against Costa Cruise Lines.  After the statute of limitations expired, the company defended on the basis that it was merely the marketing and sales agent and had no responsibility for the operation of the ship.

The Supreme Court’s opinion, written by Justice Sotomayor, rejected the gamesmanship urged by the defendant.  The plaintiff’s failure to understand the different statuses of the parties was not the issue. Instead, the Court focused on the defendant.  The defendant knew that the case was pending, and knew that the plaintiff had not caught the owner/marketing distinction in the corporate names.  That knowledge prevented it from evading responsibility for defending the case.

This issue may seem like it belongs in civil procedure nerd kingdom, but these kinds of mistakes can arise easily.  As Justice Sotomayor pointed out, the cruise line’s ticket and website invited confusion over the identity of the cruise ship owner.  Similar corporate names can easily lead someone to sue the wrong person.  A business’s website and other marketing materials may use a company’s trade name, not the corporate name.   This practice is common with franchised businesses, whose goodwill lies in the brand of the sandwich or hotel operation, not the corporate owner’s name.  The Supreme Court (unanimously)  got this right.

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