What Happens When You Name the Wrong Defendant in a Personal Injury Lawsuit?

Georgia law imposes a two-year statute of limitations on most personal injury claims. For example, if you were injured in a car accident on January 1, 2017, you would normally have until January 1, 2019, to file a lawsuit against the negligent driver. There is an exception to this rule, known as the renewal statute, that states if you file a lawsuit before the two-year deadline expires, and you later dismiss the case voluntarily, you can still refile within six months of that dismissal.

Now, it is important to emphasize that the renewal statute does not let you extend the statute of limitations itself. In other words, let us say there were two defendants you wanted to sue in connection with your car accident. You filed a lawsuit against Defendant A within the statute of limitations. But after the original two-year deadline expired, you dismiss the lawsuit and file a new complaint naming both Defendant A and Defendant B. The court would dismiss Defendant B from the case because the renewal statute does not permit you to add a defendant who was not named in the original lawsuit filed before the statute of limitations expired.

Aaron v. Jekyll Island State Park Authority

Here is an actual example of what we are talking about. This is taken from a recent decision by the Georgia Court of Appeals, Aaron v. Jekyll Island State Park Authority. This case involves a plaintiff who was allegedly injured at the Summer Waves Park on Jekyll Island. The incident itself occurred in September 2013. In September 2015, just before the two-year statute of limitations expired, the plaintiff filed a lawsuit naming as the defendant the “Georgia Department of Natural Resources d/b/a Summer Waves Water Park.”

In December 2015, after the original statute of limitations expired, the plaintiff dismissed her first lawsuit and filed a second one, this time naming the defendant as the “Jekyll Island State Park Authority, a/k/a Jekyll Island Authority, d/b/a Summer Waves Water Park.” The second lawsuit contained essentially the same factual allegations as the first one.

The difference in the named defendants was more than semantics. As the Court of Appeals explained in its opinion, the original defendant was the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), a state agency. The new defendant, in contrast, was the Jekyll Island–State Park Authority, which is a state corporation. Although the Authority is “attached to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources for administrative purposes only,” the Court observed, the Authority retains a “separate identity as an instrumentality of the state and a public corporation.”

This matters because by naming a new defendant, the plaintiff’s lawsuit falls outside the renewal statute, as she failed to name the Authority in a lawsuit filed before the two-year deadline expired. The fact that both lawsuits “named the Jekyll Island–State Park Authority’s trade name, Summer Waves Water Park,” was irrelevant. Essentially, the plaintiff identified the wrong defendant in her first lawsuit, but by the time she realized and corrected that mistake, it was too late for her to proceed.