In many instances, when a plaintiff first files a lawsuit for an injury that he or she has experienced, it may not be clear who the defendant is. For instance, maybe the plaintiff tripped on a hole left in a sidewalk but isn’t sure who created the hole. Or an individual may be hit in an accident involving a delivery truck, and, while it is clear what the company that owns the truck is, it is not clear who the driver of the truck was. In these instances, courts will allow plaintiffs to initially plead a case against a “John Doe.” It is presumed that once discovery begins, and the plaintiff is able to conduct depositions and request documents, the identity of John Doe will become apparent, and the pleadings can be amended to reflect the correct individual. In most circumstances, this is what happens. However, on the rare occasions that John Doe cannot be identified, what happens to the plaintiff’s complaint? A recent case out of the Northern District of West Virginia addresses this question.
In Myers v. Steven DuBrueler and John Doe, the plaintiff, Ms. Myers, filed a lawsuit for damages arising from injuries suffered during a car accident. According to Ms. Myers, her husband was driving their car in West Virginia when a truck operated by DuBrueler lost a sign that was attached to it. The sign fell onto Ms. Myers’ car, obstructing her husband’s view and causing him to slam on his brakes. Ms. Myers was thrown into the dashboard and suffered injuries. Ms. Myers later filed a lawsuit, alleging that the negligence of DuBrueler and the unidentified driver caused her injuries. Ms. Myers sought compensation from the driver and from DuBrueler for being vicariously liable for the driver’s actions. Since Ms. Myers did not know who the driver was, the claim was alleged against “John Doe.”
Discovery proceeded, but Ms. Myers did not identify the driver of the truck. Eventually, after discovery had ended, DuBrueler moved for summary judgment on Ms. Myers’ claims, alleging that she could not maintain a claim against “John Doe” at trial, and since she had been unable to identify the employee at issue in the crash, DuBrueler could not be vicariously liable for that driver’s actions.
The Northern District of West Virginia held that a claim could not proceed to trial based on the actions of an unidentified defendant, since it would be impossible to establish his actions or his defenses. Accordingly, the court determined that any claims against him had to be dismissed. The court then held that since the defendant had not been identified, it was impossible for Ms. Myers to establish the relationship between the defendant and the DuBrueler company, as would be necessary to hold DuBrueler vicariously liable for the employee’s actions. Accordingly, the vicarious liability claims were dismissed as well. Unfortunately for Ms. Myers, the court held that it was simply impossible for Ms. Myers to prove her case, or for DuBrueler to defend against it, if the employee could not be identified.
While plaintiffs are not expected to know all of the details of their case, or the identities of all of the parties involved, when they first bring a lawsuit, they are generally expected to identify all of the relevant defendants by the time of trial. If you are concerned that you may have a John Doe defendant who is difficult to identify, the Wolfe Law Firm can help. Our West Virginia car accident lawyers have been serving clients throughout the state for more than 25 years. Located in Elkins, West Virginia, the firm represents clients in a wide range of injury matters. Call us at 1-877-637-5756 or contact us online for a free consultation.
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