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State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company v. Payne

Supreme Court of Oklahoma

December 5, 2017

STATE FARM MUTUAL AUTOMOBILE INSURANCE COMPANY A/S/O TORI HARVEY UKPAKA, Plaintiff/Appellant,
v.
NICHOLAS D. PAYNE, Defendant/Appellee.

         ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE OKLAHOMA COURT OF CIVIL APPEALS, DIVISION I

          Thomas G. Ferguson, Jr., Clay G. Ferguson, and Brian P. Kershaw, Walker, Ferguson & Ferguson, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for Plaintiff/Appellant.

          Greg D. Givens and Sheila R. Benson, Givens Law Firm, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for Defendant/Appellee.

          WYRICK, J.

         ¶0 Plaintiff/Appellant is an insurance company suing as subrogee of its insured for damages arising out of an automobile accident between the insured and Defendant/Appellee. The insured originally brought this action, but voluntarily dismissed it after the statute of limitations had run. Whether Plaintiff/Appellant may now revive that claim depends on whether it may take advantage of the savings statute at 12 O.S. § 100, which gives "the plaintiff" up to one year from the date of a non-merits-based termination in which to refile an otherwise time-barred claim. In light of our historic interpretation of that statute, we conclude that because Plaintiff/Appellant is "substantially the same, suing in the same right" as its insured for purposes of a subrogation claim, it should be entitled to the same treatment as its insured for purposes of the savings statute. Accordingly, we hold that Plaintiff/Appellant's action, filed within one year after its insured voluntarily dismissed the same, is timely.

         ¶1 When describing an insurer's subrogation claim, we say that the subrogated insurer "steps into the shoes of the plaintiff." [1] Here, the original plaintiff, Tori Ukpaka, brought a timely lawsuit against the Defendant/Appellee, Nicholas Payne, for injuries arising out of an automobile accident that happened in 2012. Ukpaka then voluntarily dismissed that lawsuit in 2015--after the statute of limitations for such actions had run. No one questions that if Ukpaka wanted to refile her claim, the savings statute at 12 O.S. § 100 would allow her up to one year from the date of the dismissal to do so. [2] The question in this case is whether Ukpaka's subrogated insurer, State Farm, enjoys the same one-year grace period in which to revive Ukpaka's claim. We hold that it does, and thus that when a subrogated insurer "steps into the shoes of the plaintiff, " that includes being treated like the plaintiff for purposes of the savings statute.

         I.

         ¶2 The automobile accident giving rise to this case happened on January 23, 2012. On January 3, 2014, just within the applicable two-year statute of limitations, [3] Ukpaka filed a negligence claim against the other driver in the accident, Payne, alleging damages "in excess of $10, 000."

         ¶3 Ukpaka, meanwhile, was going through the claims process with her insurance provider, State Farm. State Farm assessed Ukpaka's damages, and shortly after Ukpaka commenced the lawsuit against Payne, State Farm paid Ukpaka a total of $38, 500 in insurance benefits pursuant to her policy for uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage. Ukpaka then decided not to pursue her claim against Payne and moved to voluntarily dismiss that lawsuit. The cause was dismissed without prejudice on January 14, 2015- -approximately one year after the statute of limitations had run.

         ¶4 Roughly two months later, on March 20, 2015, State Farm filed this lawsuit raising the same negligence claim as Ukpaka, only this time the named plaintiff was "State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company a[s]/s[ubrogee]/o[f] Tori Harvey Ukpaka, " rather than Ukpaka herself. State Farm argued in its petition that this action was timely in light of 12 O.S. § 100. Payne countered in a motion for summary judgment that State Farm cannot avail itself of 12 O.S. § 100 because it was not a plaintiff in the original action, and that its claim is thus time-barred. The district court granted Payne's motion, and the Court of Civil Appeals affirmed. We granted certiorari and now reverse.

         II.

         ¶5 Title 12, section 100 states:

If any action is commenced within due time, and a judgment thereon for the plaintiff is reversed, or if the plaintiff fail in such action otherwise than upon the merits, the plaintiff, or, if he should die, and the cause of action survive, his representatives may commence a new action within one (1) year after the reversal or failure although the time limit for commencing the action shall have expired before the new action is filed.

         To avail itself of this statute, State Farm must demonstrate four things: (1) that the original action was timely, (2) that the action terminated for some reason other than its merits, (3) that State Farm qualifies as one of the parties entitled to revive the action, and (4) that the new action is substantially the same as the original. [4] Ukpaka's original action was timely and its voluntary dismissal was a termination for reasons other than the merits, [5] which leaves only two questions. First, does State Farm qualify as one of the parties entitled to revive the action? And, second, is the action State Farm asserts substantially the same as Ukpaka's? We answer both in the affirmative.

         A.

         ¶6 Under the plain text, there are two classes of person entitled to the benefit of the savings statute: "the plaintiff" and "his representatives" as survivors of the plaintiff. [6] State Farm does not claim to be a representative survivor of Ukpaka; thus, the only way it can proceed under the savings statute is if it can qualify as "the plaintiff." Payne argues that we should narrowly construe that term and limit it to only those that participated as plaintiffs in the original action. Our cases say otherwise.

         ¶7 We have consistently held that Oklahoma's savings statute is "remedial" in nature, and thus "should be liberally construed." [7] Accordingly, our test for whether a subsequent plaintiff qualifies as "the plaintiff" for purposes of 12 O.S. § 100 focuses not on whether the subsequent plaintiff is identical to the one before, but on whether the two entities are "substantially the same." [8] To determine that, we ask whether the parties are "suing in the same right." [9]

         ¶8 For example, in Midland Valley Railroad Co. v. Townes, we held that a personal representative to a decedent's estate could avail itself of the savings statute to revive a wrongful death claim originally brought by the decedent's widow. [10] We said in that case that "the present action is the same as the former. The change ...


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