Pursuant to North Carolina Rule of Civil Procedure 41(a)(1), a plaintiff, under certain conditions, can voluntarily dismiss his or her complaint and file a new action based on the same claim within one year after the dismissal. In Murphy v. Hinton, — S.E.2d –, 2015 WL 4081966 (N.C. App. July 7, 2015), the Court of Appeals of North Carolina considered whether the plaintiff, who voluntarily dismissed her wrongful death complaint without prejudice, could take advantage of Rule 41(a)(1)’s tolling provision and extend the statute of limitations for an additional year. The court, following Estrada v. Burnham, 316 N.C. 318, 341 S.E.2d 358 (1986), held that, in order to toll the statute of limitations, the original complaint must conform in all respects to the rules of pleading. The court also held that the plaintiff’s complaint failed to satisfy the notice pleading requirements of Rule 8(a)(1) because the plaintiff’s negligence claim failed to identify the duty that the plaintiff owed, failed to allege unreasonable conduct and otherwise failed to reference the essential elements of a negligence cause of action. Because the plaintiff’s complaint failed to comply with the “rudimentary notice pleading requirements of Rule 8(a)(1),” the court held that the plaintiff could not rely on Rule 41(a)(1) to extend the statute of limitations. Thus, the court affirmed the trial court’s order dismissing the plaintiff’s complaint based on the statute of limitations.
The court’s decision is a reminder that, even if you are running up against the statute of limitations in a state such as North Carolina that tolls the statute of limitations if you file a complaint and then subsequently dismiss the action, you cannot simply file a placeholder complaint. Rather, you should file a complaint that effectively states a claim against the defendant. Otherwise, you run the risk that a court will find that the complaint, if subsequently dismissed, failed to toll the statute of limitations.