Suing the Wrong Entity

If you’re going to file a lawsuit, it’s always a good idea to first do the necessary research to determine the correct identity of the person or corporate entity you’re suing. Failure to do so could result in permanent dismissal. The likelihood of this happening depends largely on the nature of the mistaken identity. The term “misnomer” refers to the situation where a plaintiff has used the wrong name to refer to an otherwise correctly identified party. In these situations, courts typically allow the plaintiff to amend the pleadings to correct the mistake. The term “misjoinder,” on the other hand, refers to the situation where a plaintiff names a completely incorrect party. In this situation, the plaintiff has filed a lawsuit against a person or entity who should not have been included in the lawsuit. This is the more serious mistake that often results in dismissal.

By way of example, take a look at the case of Dawn Monroe v. Mary Washington Healthcare. Ms. Monroe suffered a fall and injury while on the premises of the Tompkins-Martin Medical Plaza in Fredericksburg, Virginia. She filed a lawsuit against two defendants: Mary Washington Hospital, Inc., and Mary Washington Healthcare, both of which she believed were the owners of the Medical Plaza. She was wrong about that. The defendants were able to show (by directing the court’s attention to publicly available information online) that the Medical Plaza was actually owned by Tompkins-Martin Medical Plaza LLP, a separate corporate entity. Ms. Monroe then moved to simply substitute the correct defendant for the incorrectly named defendant and move on with the case. The trial court wouldn’t allow the amendment and dismissed the case with prejudice. On appeal, the Court of Appeals affirmed this decision.

The court began its analysis by explaining the distinction between “misjoinder” and a mere “misnomer.” Misjoinder refers to the situation when “the person or entity identified by the pleading was not the person by or against whom the action could, or was intended to be, brought.” (See Marsh v. Roanoke City, 301 Va. 152, 155 (2022)). A misnomer, on the other hand, “occurs where the proper party to the underlying action has been identified, but incorrectly named.” (See id.) “The key distinction between a misnomer and misjoinder is whether the incorrectly named party in the pleading is, in fact, a correct party who has been sufficiently identified in the Choice-300x238pleadings.” (See Hampton v. Meyer, 299 Va. 121, 128 (2020)).

In cases of misjoinder, the court held, “the only resolution…, in the absence of a statute of limitations bar, is to commence a new action against the proper party.” (See Ray v. Ready, 296 Va. 553, 559 (2018)). The mistake can’t be “legitimized” by simply substituting the correct party.

The court found that this case involved misjoinder and not a mere misnomer. The reference in the complaint to “Mary Washington Healthcare” wasn’t intended as a reference to Tompkins-Martin Medical Plaza LLP; the complaint included corporate details that referred specifically to Mary Washington Healthcare. It was clear she intended to sue that specific entity. And while it did appear that the two companies were potentially related in some way (Ms. Monroe had pointed out, for example, that a Google search for Tompkins-Martin Medical Plaza led to the Mary Washington Healthcare website), Ms. Monroe had not demonstrated a sufficient basis for piercing the corporate veil.

Finally, the court examined Virginia Code § 8.01-5, which states that “new parties may be added and parties misjoined may be dropped by order of the court at any time as the ends of justice may require.” This is a discretionary statute, and the court found that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in refusing to allow joinder of the correct party. The “ends of justice” language requires an examination of justice for all parties, not just the party seeking the amendment, and the court found that after balancing the equities, the trial court acted well within its discretion in dismissing the case with prejudice.

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