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Stenzel v. Best Buy Company, Inc.

Court of Appeals of Michigan

June 27, 2017

PAULETTE STENZEL, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
BEST BUY COMPANY, INC., and SAMSUNG ELECTRONICS AMERICA, INC., Defendants-Appellees.

          Ingham Circuit Court LC No. 14-000527-NO

          Before: Servitto, P.J., and Murphy, Cavanagh, Fort Hood, Borrello, Gleicher, and Shapiro, JJ.

          Murphy, J.

         Pursuant to MCR 7.215(J), this special panel was convened to resolve a conflict between the prior opinion issued in this case, Stenzel v Best Buy Co, Inc, __ Mich.App. __; __ N.W.2d __ (2016), vacated solely with respect to part II(C) of the opinion __ Mich.App. __ (2017), and this Court's opinion in Williams v Arbor Home, Inc, 254 Mich.App. 439; 656 N.W.2d 873 (2002), vacated in part on other grounds 469 Mich. 898 (2003). The conflict concerns the proper interpretation of and interplay between MCL 600.2957(2) and MCR 2.112(K)(4) in regard to the process of amending a pleading to add a party previously identified as a nonparty at fault and the effect of the process on the relation-back language of the statute for purposes of the governing period of limitations. We hold that there exists a conflict, on a matter of procedure, between the provisions of the court rule and the statute relative to whether a party must file a motion for leave to amend a pleading to add an identified nonparty at fault to an action, as provided by MCL 600.2957(2), or may simply file an amended pleading as a matter of course or right, as provided by MCR 2.112(K)(4), absent the need to seek court authorization for the amendment. There is no conflict between the statute and the court rule on the substantive principle and intended outcome that a party will in fact be given an opportunity to pursue and litigate an amended pleading, assuming compliance with the 91-day deadline. We further hold that the Michigan Supreme Court, in crafting the court rule and with the goal of judicial expediency and efficiency, intended to alter or streamline the process outlined by the Legislature, allowing a party to directly file an amended pleading, instead of needlessly forcing the party to file a motion for leave to amend, which a court is mandated to grant under MCL 600.2957(2) without exception. We additionally hold that our Supreme Court, under its constitutional authority to "establish, modify, amend and simplify the practice and procedure in all courts of this state, " Const 1963, art 6, § 5, was indeed empowered to modify and simplify the process set forth by the Legislature in MCL 600.2957(2). Finally, we hold that the relation-back provision contained in the second sentence of MCL 600.2957(2), which subject-matter was not addressed by the Supreme Court in MCR 2.112(K), is fully applicable, regardless of the fact that MCR 2.112(K)(4) ultimately controls the process with respect to amending a pleading to add an identified nonparty at fault. Accordingly, we reverse the trial court's order granting summary disposition in favor of defendant Samsung Electronics America, Inc.

         I. THE NATURE OF THE DISPUTE

         As part of the 1995 tort reform legislation that eliminated joint and several liability in certain tort actions and required factfinders to allocate fault among all responsible tortfeasors, the Legislature enacted MCL 600.2957. See Gerling Konzern Allgemeine Versicherungs AG v Lawson, 472 Mich. 44, 50-51; 693 N.W.2d 149 (2005) (discussing MCL 600.2957, as well as MCL 600.2956 and MCL 600.6304); see also 1995 PA 161 and 249, effective March 28, 1996. MCL 600.2957 provides, in pertinent part:

(1) In an action based on tort or another legal theory seeking damages for personal injury, property damage, or wrongful death, the liability of each person shall be allocated under this section by the trier of fact and, subject to section 6304, in direct proportion to the person's percentage of fault. In assessing percentages of fault under this subsection, the trier of fact shall consider the fault of each person, regardless of whether the person is, or could have been, named as a party to the action.
(2) Upon motion of a party within 91 days after identification of a nonparty, the court shall grant leave to the moving party to file and serve an amended pleading alleging 1 or more causes of action against that nonparty. A cause of action added under this subsection is not barred by a period of limitation unless the cause of action would have been barred by a period of limitation at the time of the filing of the original action.

         As reflected in the first sentence of MCL 600.2957(2), the procedure for a party to amend a pleading in order to add an identified nonparty at fault to a pending lawsuit entails the filing of a motion for leave to amend the pleading within 91 days following the identification, which motion must be granted by the trial court without exception. There is no language in MCL 600.2957(2) that contemplates or envisions a party merely filing an amended pleading as a matter of course or right.[1] With respect to the second sentence of MCL 600.2957(2), any amendment of a pleading to add a cause of action against an identified nonparty at fault relates back to the date of the filing of the original action for purposes of assessing whether the applicable period of limitations has expired.

          On November 6, 1996, the Michigan Supreme Court adopted MCR 2.112(K), adding the subsection to the court rule to address the statutory changes made pursuant to 1995 PA 161 and 249, which included the enactment of MCL 600.2957; subsection (K) was made effective February 1, 1997. See 453 Mich. cxix (1996); MCR 2.112(K)(1) ("This subrule applies to actions based on tort or another legal theory seeking damages for personal injury, property damage, or wrongful death to which MCL 600.2957 and MCL 600.6304, as amended by 1995 PA 249, apply."); Veltman v Detroit Edison Co, 261 Mich.App. 685, 695; 683 N.W.2d 707 (2004); Staff Comment to 1997 Amendment of MCR 2.112. "MCR 2.112(K) was essentially intended to implement MCL 600.2957." Holton v A Ins Assoc, Inc, 255 Mich.App. 318, 324; 661 N.W.2d 248 (2003). Under MCR 2.112(K)(3)(a), "[a] party against whom a claim is asserted may give notice of a claim that a nonparty is wholly or partially at fault." "The notice shall designate the nonparty and set forth the nonparty's name and last known address, or the best identification of the nonparty that is possible, together with a brief statement of the basis for believing the nonparty is at fault." MCR 2.112(K)(3)(b). While allowing for a later filing under certain circumstances, the notice must generally be filed "within 91 days after the party files its first responsive pleading." MCR 2.112(K)(3)(c). Finally, and most importantly for our purposes, MCR 2.112(K)(4) provides:

A party served with a notice under this subrule may file an amended pleading stating a claim or claims against the nonparty within 91 days of service of the first notice identifying that nonparty. The court may permit later amendment as provided in MCR 2.118.

         As reflected in MCR 2.112(K)(4), our Supreme Court did not indicate that a motion for leave to amend a pleading must be filed to add a claim against an identified nonparty at fault; rather, the Court simply provided that a party may directly file an amended pleading if done within the 91-day period. The Court did not speak to the issue of whether an amended pleading filed within the 91-day period relates back to the filing of the original pleading.

         The nature or crux of the dispute regards whether a party seeking to amend a pleading to add an identified nonparty at fault to the lawsuit must file a motion for leave to amend, as indicated by the Legislature in the first sentence of MCL 600.2957(2), or whether the party may file an amended pleading as a matter of course or right, assuming it to be timely, as indicated by our Supreme Court in MCR 2.112(K)(4). And, in the context of resolving that dispute and of ultimate importance, is the question concerning the expiration of the applicable period of limitations and whether a filing will relate back to the filing date of the original pleading.

         II. THE WILLIAMS OPINION

         In Williams, the plaintiff attempted to add Michigan Elevator Company (MEC) as a party through the filing of an amended complaint after Arbor Home, Inc., the originally-named defendant, filed a notice of nonparty fault, identifying MEC; the plaintiff did not file a motion for leave to amend his complaint. The plaintiff argued that MCL 600.2957(2) and MCR 2.112(K)(4) conflict and that the court rule prevails and governs because the matter concerns an issue of procedure. Williams, 254 Mich.App. at 442-443. The defendants maintained that the court rule and statute are not in conflict and that MCL 600.2957(2) merely includes more detail than MCR 2.112(K)(4). Id. at 443. The panel agreed with the defendants, reasoning as follows:

The court rule plainly allows a plaintiff to file an amended complaint adding a nonparty but does not specifically mention whether leave of the court is also required. The statute, on the other hand, states that leave of the court is indeed required. As argued by defendants, the statute therefore merely includes more detail than the court rule. Moreover, the court rule specifically refers to MCL 600.2957, see MCR 2.112(K)(1), and the statute is again specifically mentioned in the staff comment to the 1997 amendment of MCR 2.112. The staff comment to the 1997 amendment indicates that the court rule was essentially meant to implement the statute. Reading the court rule and the statute in conjunction, we conclude that leave of the court is indeed required before an amended pleading adding a nonparty becomes effective.
Because plaintiff did not seek leave of the court to add MEC as a party, MEC was never properly added to this lawsuit. Accordingly, we conclude upon our review de novo that the December 21, 1999, order was indeed the final order in this case. Therefore, plaintiff forewent his appeal by right. [Id. at 443-444.]

         We note that the analysis in Williams was framed in terms of whether this Court had jurisdiction; there was no discussion regarding any period of limitations. Judge O'Connell dissented in part, contending that there is a conflict between the statute and the court rule, that the conflict concerns a matter of procedure, and that the court rule therefore controls. Id. at 445-446.

         III. THE PRIOR STENZEL OPINION

         In the instant case, Stenzel, the plaintiff filed suit against Best Buy Company, Inc., in April 2014, alleging that Best Buy sold her a refrigerator/freezer which Best Buy installed, that the refrigerator/freezer later started spraying water onto her kitchen floor, and that due to either wet feet or a wet floor caused by the water, she subsequently fell in her sunroom and sustained injuries. In May 2015, the plaintiff amended her complaint to add Samsung Electronics America, Inc., the manufacturer of the refrigerator/freezer, as a party, doing so within 91 days of Samsung being identified in a notice as a nonparty at fault. The plaintiff did not file a motion for leave to amend the complaint. The trial court granted summary disposition in favor of Best Buy and Samsung, concluding that the plaintiff failed to create a genuine issue of material fact with respect to causation. The trial court also ruled that the plaintiff's claims against Samsung were barred by the applicable period of limitations, as measured by the date the amended complaint was filed, not the date on which the suit was first initiated against Best Buy. Stenzel, __ Mich.App. at __; slip op at 1-2, 4. This Court held that the trial court erred in regard to the issue of causation as to both Best Buy and Samsung, and that decision was not vacated and remains intact. Id. at __; slip op at 2-4.

         With respect to the period of limitations, the plaintiff argued that because she had filed an amended complaint within 91 days of the notice identifying Samsung as a nonparty at fault, the amended complaint related back to the date of the original complaint, which had been filed within the applicable limitations period. Samsung contended that because the plaintiff filed her amended complaint without filing a motion for leave to amend, the relation-back provision in MCL 600.2957(2) did not apply. Id. at __; slip op at 4. The prior Stenzel panel found that Williams was binding precedent and controlled, dictating a conclusion that Samsung was never properly added as a party to the action, considering that the plaintiff did not seek leave to add Samsung as a party. Id. at __; slip op at 5. If not constrained by the Williams decision, this Court indicated that it would have held that because the plaintiff followed the requirements of MCR 2.112(K)(4), she properly added Samsung as a party defendant, making her amended complaint timely under the relation-back provision of the statute. Id. at __; slip op at 7. In opining that Williams was wrongly decided, the Court stated that it agreed with the reasoning of Judge O'Connell in his partial dissent in Williams. Stenzel, __ Mich App at __; slip op at 5-6. In the alternative, the panel concluded that Williams was wrongly decided for the reasons expressed by then-Judge Zahra in his concurring opinion in Bint v Doe, 274 Mich.App. 232, 237-238; 732 N.W.2d 156 (2008).[2]

         IV. OUR ANALYSIS

         A. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         We review de novo issues concerning the interpretation of statutes and court rules, Estes v Titus, 481 Mich. 573, 578-579; 751 N.W.2d 493 (2008), rulings on motions for summary disposition, Loweke v Ann Arbor Ceiling & Partition Co, LLC, 489 Mich. 157, 162; 809 N.W.2d 553 (2011), and questions regarding whether an action is barred by a period of limitations, Caron v Cranbrook Ed Community, 298 Mich.App. 629, 635; 828 N.W.2d 99 (2012).

         B. PRINCIPLES OF STATUTORY AND COURT-RULE CONSTRUCTION

         In Whitman v City of Burton, 493 Mich. 303, 311-312; 831 N.W.2d 223 (2013), our Supreme Court articulated the principles that govern the ...


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