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What is the Relation-Back Doctrine?

Learn more about this doctrine and how it permits claims that could otherwise be time barred as asserted against particular defendants.


The relation-back doctrine is a well-settled legal principle which allows a plaintiff to amend a complaint to add a cause of action which would otherwise be barred by the statute of limitations. That is really its only purpose. If a party seeks to amend his or her pleading before the statute of limitations runs, he or she doesn’t need anything to relate back. But if the original pleading was filed before the statute ran, and later, after the statute has run, the party wishes that the original complaint had included other or different allegations that the concept of relation back saves the day.

By "relation-back," what the courts are saying is that the court is going to pretend that the new allegations appeared in the original document--even though they didn’t. As long as the factual allegations “relate back” to the those alleged in the original complaint, an additional cause of action will not be subject to the applicable statute of limitations. The policy behind statutes of limitation is to put a defendant on notice of the need to defend against a claim in time to prepare an adequate defense.


Relation Back Doctrine in California courts

Under the relation-back doctrine, in order to avoid the statute of limitations, the amended complaint must:

  1. rest on the same general set of facts as the general complaint;

  2. refer to the same accident and same injuries as the original complaint; and

  3. refer to the same instrumentality as the original complaint.

(Norgart v. Upjohn Co. (1999) 21 Cal.4th 383, 408-409.)


A complaint must contain a statement of the facts constituting the cause of action in ordinary and concise language. (Code Civ. Proc., § 425.10(a)(1).) This requirement obligates the plaintiff to allege ultimate facts that, taken as a whole, apprise the defendant of the factual basis of the claim. (Lim v. The.TV Corp. Internat. (2002) 99 Cal.App.4th 684, 689-690.) The requirement that the complaint allege ultimate facts forming the basis for the plaintiff’s cause of action is central to the relation-back doctrine and the determination of whether an amended complaint should be deemed filed as of the date of the original pleading. (Davaloo v. State Farm Ins. Co. (2005) 135 Cal.App.4th 409, 415.)


Relation Back Doctrine in Federal courts

Amendments in federal cases are governed by Rule 15 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Subsection c directly addresses relation-back in federal courts:


An amendment to a pleading relates back to the date of the original pleading when:

  1. the law that provides the applicable statute of limitations allows relation back;

  2. the amendment asserts a claim or defense that arose out of the conduct, transaction, or occurrence set out—or attempted to be set out—in the original pleading; or

  3. the amendment changes the party or the naming of the party against whom a claim is asserted, if Rule 15(c)(1)(B) is satisfied and if, within the period provided by Rule 4(m) for serving the summons and complaint, the party to be brought in by amendment:

1. received such notice of the action that it will not be prejudiced in defending

on the merits, and

2. knew or should have known that the action would have been brought against

it, but for a mistake concerning the proper party's identity.


Most Contentious Use--Adding New Defendants

Appropriate use of the doctrine is most commonly in dispute when a plaintiff wants to add a defendant, or substitute a new defendant for the old one. Amendments to add allegations of fact, claims, and theories of recovery are the least complex. Basically, if the new allegations or claims arise out of the same operative facts as did the claims in the original complaint, they relate back.


But when it comes to adding new parties, concepts such as due process must be given consideration by the court. The statute of limitations cannot just be suspended indefinitely.


Nevertheless, if the “new” defendant got notice of the lawsuit within the time established by the rules for serving a complaint, and knew or should have known that, but for a mistake, he, she, or it should have been sued, then a later amendment to either add the “new” defendant or substitute the “new” defendant for the old one will relate back, regardless of whether the statute of limitations has run.


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