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Anderson v. Estate of Wood

Supreme Court of New Hampshire, Belknap

November 28, 2018

MONICA ANDERSON
v.
ESTATE OF MARY D. WOOD

          Argued: September 13, 2018

          Leahy & Leahy, PLLC, of Penacook (Linda B. Sullivan Leahy on the brief and orally), for the plaintiff.

          O'Shaughnessy, Walker & Buchholz, P.A., of Manchester (James G. Walker on the brief and orally), for the defendant.

          HICKS, J.

         The plaintiff, Monica Anderson, appeals a decision of the Superior Court (O'Neill, J.) dismissing her personal injury action against the defendant, the Estate of Mary D. Wood, as time-barred by RSA 508:4 (2010). We reverse and remand.

         The following facts are taken from the trial court's orders; the procedural history is taken from the record before us. On April 5, 2013, the plaintiff was involved in a motor vehicle accident with a vehicle driven by Mary D. Wood (Wood). The plaintiff commenced suit by complaint dated March 25, 2016, alleging that Wood had caused her injury by negligently rear-ending her vehicle. The complaint was mistakenly served on Wood's daughter, who was also named Mary D. Wood. The daughter moved to dismiss on the grounds that Wood had passed away on January 22, 2015, and the plaintiff had no cause of action against the daughter, who was neither the administrator of Wood's estate nor had any legal relationship with, or legal duty to, the plaintiff.

         On April 29, 2016, the plaintiff moved to amend her complaint to substitute the Estate of Mary D. Wood for Mary D. Wood as the defendant. The plaintiff's motion alleged that she had filed a petition for estate administration for the Estate of Mary D. Wood and that she would serve notice of the action on the estate once the circuit court ruled on that petition.

         On June 30, 2016, the trial court dismissed the action, ruling, sua sponte, that it did not have subject matter jurisdiction. The court noted the plaintiff's concession that she had filed the action against the wrong defendant, but concluded that it could not grant her motion to amend because there was "nothing in the record to suggest . . . that an Estate of Mary D. Wood presently exists." The parties did not dispute that Wood died intestate and no estate had been opened immediately following her death. The court acknowledged the plaintiff's allegation that she had sought to open an estate, but noted that the plaintiff had not provided "any documentation demonstrating that the [circuit court] ever issued a grant of administration of said estate." Accordingly, the court dismissed the action, ruling that "there is presently no legal entity that can be properly substituted for the current defendant such that this Court would possess subject matter jurisdiction over this action pursuant to RSA 556:7." See RSA 556:7 (2007).

         In August 2016, a certificate of appointment was issued, naming an administrator of the Estate of Mary D. Wood. The plaintiff filed her complaint in the instant action on April 4, 2017. The defendant moved to dismiss, arguing that the statute of limitations had run on the claim.

         The trial court granted the motion to dismiss. The court ruled that because the action "is one for personal injury, and it was not pending until after [Wood's] death[, ] . . . said action falls within the purview of RSA 556:11, and is thus subject to the limitations of RSA 508:4." See RSA 508:4; RSA 556:11 (2007). The court further ruled:

It is undisputed that the accident giving rise to the present cause of action occurred on April 5, 2013. Therefore, in order to satisfy the three-year statute of limitations period set forth in RSA 508:4, the plaintiff was required to file the present action by April 5, 2016. Because the present action was filed April 4, 2017, nearly one year after the three-year statute of limitations had run, the Court finds that the plaintiff's claim is time-barred by RSA 508:4.

         This appeal followed.

         We first set forth our standard of review.

In reviewing a trial court's ruling on a motion to dismiss, we generally consider whether the [plaintiff's] allegations are reasonably susceptible of a construction that would permit recovery. The [defendant], however, moved to dismiss based exclusively upon the statute of limitations. The statute of limitations is an ...

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