Poor Pleading Leads to Loss of Claim for Trespass Due to Relation-Back Doctrine, Statute of Limitations

In Scholes v. Lambirth Trucking Co. (No. C070770, Filed 4/6/2017), the California Court of Appeal for the Third Appellate District held that the relation-back doctrine could not save a property owner’s trespass claim against an adjacent neighbor where the property owner’s original complaint was factually devoid and was later amended to include the trespass claim after the statute of limitations had run.

The relation-back doctrine is a well-settled legal principle which allows a plaintiff to amend a complaint to add a cause of action which would otherwise be barred by the statute of limitations. As long as the factual allegations “relate back” to the those alleged in the original complaint, an additional cause of action will not be subject to the applicable statute of limitations. The policy behind statutes of limitation is to put a defendant on notice of the need to defend against a claim in time to prepare an adequate defense.

On May 21, 2007, a fire broke out at defendant Lambirth Trucking Company’s (“Lambirth”) soil enhancement facility adjacent to plaintiff Vincent Scholes’ (“Scholes”) property. Scholes had previously notified Lambirth that wood chips and rice hulls were accumulating on his property as a result of Lambirth’s operations. Local authorities also warned Lambirth of the hazards presented by storage of those materials.

On May 21, 2010, exactly three years after the fire, Scholes named Lambirth and its insurer Financial Pacific Insurance Company in a lawsuit. In fumbling and confusing language, Scholes alleged that there was a “dispute compensation on insurance claim.” He stated that “[d]efendants have accepted liability, dispute amount of damages from fire.” Scholes complained that he lost use of his property and suffered general damages and property damages as a result of the fire. Both defendants filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings arguing Scholes failed to allege facts sufficient to state a cause of action. The trial court granted the motion with leave to amend the complaint.

Scholes went through two further iterations of his complaint. In the second amended complaint he added a cause of action for trespass. Lambirth demurred to the second amended complaint arguing that the new cause of action was barred by the statute of limitations. After Scholes added three causes of action in the third amended complaint for negligent trespass, intentional trespass, and strict liability (trespass through unnatural activity), Lambirth successfully demurred again based on the same statute of limitations premise, however, the court did not grant Scholes leave to amend after the third dispositive motion. Scholes appealed.

The issue on appeal was whether Scholes’ trespass claim related back to the original complaint. After determining that the applicable statute of limitations was three years, the court considered whether Lambirth had adequate notice of the claim based on the facts alleged in the original pleading.

The court determined that the lack of facts alleged by Scholes was in stark contrast to those alleged in Fourth Pointe San Diego Residential Community, L.P. v. Procopio, Cory, Hargreaves & Savitch, LLP (2011) 195 Cal.App.4th 265, where that court found that an added cause of action related back to the operative complaint. In Pointe San Diego, the plaintiff marked the box on the form complaint for “general negligence” and claimed that his attorneys caused him damage because they failed to use due care in the handling of an underlying lawsuit. The Pointe San Diego court ultimately held that the defendant law firm was put on notice even though the original complaint did not detail how the firm had allegedly breached the standard of care.

The facts Scholes alleged in his original complaint were easily distinguishable from those alleged in Pointe San Diego. The original complaint did not identify the property at issue or specify the damages suffered; it merely listed “loss of use of property” and “property damage.” The complaint also failed to specify the date, origin, or scope of the fire. Further, the original complaint did not set forth the relationship between the parties or any duties owed to Scholes by Lambirth. Nor did the original complaint specify any causes of action except for checking the box for “Property Damage.” Nothing in the original complaint set forth any factual basis for Scholes’ subsequent claims for negligent trespass, intentional trespass, or unnatural activity trespass. The court found it impossible to even infer the nature of any dispute between Scholes and Lambirth based on the original complaint.

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April 11, 2017