Effective April 1, 2019, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has adopted new Rule 2005, which codifies the initiation of suit against “John Doe” defendants. This new rule lays out the proper procedure that Plaintiffs can use to initiate a suit against unknown defendants, commonly referred to as “John Doe” defendants.
A “John Doe” defendant refers to an anonymous defendant. There may be situations in which the plaintiff does not, at the time of filing suit, know the name of the person they intend to sue. As the statute of limitations for many torts, such as personal injury and medical malpractice, is generally very short, plaintiffs are under pressure to issue an originating process within the statute of limitations so as not to waive their claims. In such cases, the anonymous defendant is labeled as “John Doe” or “Jane Doe.” These types of defendants are common in several situations. For example, police-brutality lawsuits in which the plaintiff does not know the names of the officers allegedly at fault, or in motor vehicle accident cases where the Plaintiff does not know the identity of the driver which struck them and left the scene.
Previously, Pennsylvania state courts did not always recognize a cause of action against “Doe” defendants as a means of tolling the statute of limitations, (see Anderson Equip. Co. v. Huchber, 456 Pa. Super. 535, 541, 690 A.2d 1239, 1241 (1997)), however, recent trends in the case law show that some Pennsylvania Courts have allowed “John Doe” complaints to survive dismissal. See Massaro v. Tincher Contracting LLC, 2019 PA Super 44 (Feb. 19, 2019). Currently, the Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure are silent as to the use of “Doe” defendants in litigation, therefore, Rule 2005 is intended to fill this gap between the case law and the Rules by standardizing the procedure by which to assert a cause of action against unknown defendants. Rule 2005 requires the information in the complaint concerning the “Doe” defendant to sufficiently describe that defendant for all intents and purposes except by its actual name. Rule 2005 is not intended to affect the substantive rights of any litigant. The Court has stated that the ability to substitute the actual name of the “Doe” defendant after the expiration of the statute of limitations does not impermissibly extend it and that Rule 2005 does not extend the time for filing an action as prescribed by the applicable statute of limitations. The rule is intended solely to provide a procedural mechanism to substitute the actual name of a Doe-designated defendant where the action has been filed within the limitations period and the defendant has been adequately described in the complaint to demonstrate that it was that defendant against whom the action was asserted.
The new Rule requires a complaint using a “John/Jane Doe” or similar designation to describe the defendant with sufficient particularity for identification. The rule imposes a duty on the plaintiff or joining party to exercise due diligence in identifying the actual name of the defendant both before and after the complaint is filed. While a sufficient description of an unknown defendant is typically fact specific to a particular case, it may include the physical characteristics of the unknown defendant, the position or title of the job performed by the unknown defendant, the alleged conduct of the unknown defendant, and how the unknown defendant is connected to the action.
The new procedure established in Rule 2005, effective April 1, 2019, provides that: (a) The new rule only applies to in personam actions. (b) The plaintiff or joining party may designate an unknown defendant by a “Doe” designation in a complaint provided that: (1) a defendant’s actual name is unknown to the plaintiff or joining party after having conducted a reasonable search with due diligence; (2) the “Doe” designation is averred to be fictitious; (3) a factual description of the unknown defendant is averred with sufficient particularity for identification; and (4) the plaintiff or joining party avers that a reasonable search to determine the actual name has been conducted. (c) Within 20 days after the actual name of the defendant has been identified, the plaintiff or joining party must file a motion to amend the complaint by replacing the “Doe” designation with the defendant’s actual name.
Finally, an affidavit must be attached to the motion describing the nature and extent of the investigation that was made to determine the identity of the defendant, and the date upon and the manner in which the defendant’s actual name was identified. If all of these procedures are included in the “Doe” Complaint, the court will grant a Motion to Amend that is filed later upon discovering the identity of the defendant, unless the court finds that the party seeking the amendment failed to exercise due diligence in identifying the actual name of the defendant.
This new Rule greatly clarifies the steps that plaintiffs need to take to preserve their claims against unknown defendants.