Generally, most civil courts require litigants to bring all claims arising out of the same source of facts in the same civil action. When claims stemming from the same incident are filed in separate lawsuits, this is known as claim-splitting.
It’s a subsidiary of the doctrine of res judicata, meaning the same matters can’t be litigated twice. Essentially, courts want to make sure that cases aren’t tried piecemeal, and that litigation should cease once the rights and obligations of all parties have been determined.
Our Greensboro personal injury lawyers know there may be circumstances under which the same set of facts could give rise to a separate lawsuit. For example, the claim-splitting rule doesn’t necessarily restrict a later lawsuit on matters that were not relevant or at least implicitly connected to the first action. Additionally, the rule doesn’t apply to a cause of action before it accrues.
That is why, for example, a person can sue a product manufacturer for occupational exposure to asbestos resulting in asbestosis, a chronic lung disease, and then later bring action for mesothelioma, a more serious (and terminal) lung disease.
Still, you can bet the courts will weigh these matters carefully. The recent case of Carpenter v. Kenneth Thompson Builder, Inc., before the Mississippi Supreme Court, was an example of what the court called “impermissible claim-splitting.”
Here, the plaintiff tripped on striping located on the ground in a parking lot of a welcome center on Interstate 10. As a result of the fall, the plaintiff suffered two broken wrists, as well as cuts and bruises to her face.
A year after the incident, the woman filed a lawsuit against the state department of transportation, as well as five “John Does.” More than a year later, the plaintiff moved to amend her claim to include the construction company that had placed the striping, as well as a contractor. The judge granted this motion.
Two years after that, the plaintiff again moved to amend her complaint, this time seeking to add a building company, a masonry firm, a landscaping business and a security firm. According to court records, the plaintiff had been aware of the identity of these potential defendants for more than a year.
The statute of limitations on her claim was set to run out within four months of that motion to amend, but the parties could not agree on a hearing date agreeable to everyone before that time.
The trial court ultimately approved the amended complaint three months after the statute of limitations had run.
Before that, however, the plaintiff feared the amendment might not be approved prior to the statute of limitations expiration. She therefore filed a second complaint, in the same county, naming the same defendants she listed on her amended complaint. She then filed various motions to consolidate the claims, but those motions were never considered at the trial level.
The new defendants sought to dismiss bot cases – the first on the grounds that the second amended complaint was approved past the statute of limitations and the second because it impermissibly split the first cause of action.
The trial court granted the motion to dismiss, but the appellate court reversed, finding the two cases should have been considered for consolidation prior to dismissal.
The defendants appealed, and the state supreme court reinstated the ruling of the trial court. The high court held firm that a plaintiff has no right to maintain two causes of action at the same time in the same court against the same defendants for the same purpose.
Contact the North Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.
Carpenter v. Kenneth Thompson Builder, Inc., Aug. 21, 2014, Mississippi Supreme Court
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NC Court of Appeals Halts Case for Finding of Contributory Negligence, Aug. 5, 2014, Greensboro Personal Injury Lawyer Blog