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California Court Of Appeals Holds That The Relation Back Doctrine Does Not Apply To The Certificate Of Merit Requirement In Professional Negligence Actions Against Architects And Engineers

In Curtis Engineering Corporation v. Superior Court of San Diego, 16 Cal. App. 5th 542 (Cal. App. Ct. 2017), the Court of Appeals for the Fourth District of California addressed the impact of the relation-back doctrine on the certificate of merit law in professional negligence actions against design professionals.  California’s certificate of merit law, codified in the Business and Professions Code, Section 411.35, requires an attorney to consult with an architect or engineer in the same discipline before filing a complaint against a licensed architect or registered professional engineer and certify that, based on the consultation, there is reasonable and meritorious cause for filing the complaint.  If an attorney is unable to obtain a consultation prior to the running of the statute of limitations, the law provides that a certificate of merit may be filed within sixty (60) days after the filing of the complaint.

The Plaintiff, a crane operator, was injured on May 5, 2014, when his crane tipped over.  On May 3, 2016, Plaintiff filed suit against Curtis Engineering Corporation.  The original complaint did not include a certificate of merit.  However, on December 2, 2016, after the expiration of both the statute of limitations and the sixty-day grace period for filing the certificate of merit, the Plaintiff filed an amended complaint with a certificate of merit.  Curtis Engineering filed an objection, arguing the statute of limitations and the sixty-day grace period had expired.

The Court of Appeals discussed that, under the relation-back doctrine, a later-filed pleading will ordinarily be deemed to have been filed at the time of an earlier complaint for statute of limitations purposes, so long as the pleadings are based on the same general set of facts.  Based on the language of the certificate of merit statute, however, the Court held the relation-back doctrine does not apply to later-filed pleadings alleging professional negligence.

The Court noted that the certificate of merit statute requires the certificate to be filed “on or before the date of service” and the statute provides an additional sixty-day grace period for plaintiffs who are unable to obtain the certificate of merit prior to the expiration of the statute of limitations. The Court explained that these time limits would essentially be rendered meaningless if the relation-back doctrine applied.  It would give the plaintiff “virtually an unlimited amount of time to obtain the necessary consultation as long as the plaintiff files the certificate of merit with an amended complaint that relates back to the original complaint.”  The Court concluded this could not be the intent of the legislature and dismissed the complaint.

The law requiring a certificate of merit in professional negligence actions was enacted to limit frivolous lawsuits against architects and engineers.  By holding the relation-back doctrine inapplicable in the context of certificates of merit, the Court in Curtis provided further protection for design professionals.  Architects and engineers should pay close attention to the certificate of merit and if not filed in the correct time, should pursue a motion to dismiss based on the defective pleading.