Rule 1.070(J), Application of

Application of Rule 1.070(J) Trial Attorneys beware, the Florida Supreme Court in the case of Leslie Pearlstein, M.D. v. William King, 18 F.L.W. S.8 (Fla. Dec. 24, 1992), recently held that the 120 day limit for serving defendants after the initial pleading has been filed applies to complaints filed before the effective date of the Rule. Rule 1.070(j) – Summons-Time Limit, states that “if service of the initial process and initial pleading is not made upon a defendant within 120 days after filing of the initial pleading and the party on whose behalf service is required does not show good cause why service was not made within that time, the action shall be dismissed without prejudice or that defendant dropped as a party on the Court’s own initiative after notice or on motion.” After the Rule was enacted, there was great confusion regarding when the Rule would apply and whether it should apply to cases filed before the effective date of the Rule. The Courts of Appeal were in conflict on how the matter should be decided. Berdeaux v. Eagle Picture Industries, 575 So.2d 1295 (Fla. 3d DCA 1990) rev. denied, 589 So.2d 294 (Fla. 1991) conflicted with King v. Pearlstein, 592 So.2d 1176 (Fla. 2d DCA 1992). The key question in the Pearlstein v. King case was whether the 120 day time limit for serving a defendant after filing an initial pleading as provided for by Rule 1.070(j) applied to complaints filed before the effective date of the Rule, January 1, 1989. The Supreme Court held that the 120 days time limit applied. Id. In ruling in favor of the application of the 120 day limit to causes of action pending before January 1, 1989, the Court clarified that it was not ruling that the procedural rule was to be interpreted as a retroactive application. Instead, the Supreme Court made a prospective interpretation of the Rule. That is, the Supreme Court ruled that the plaintiff had to serve the defendant within 120 days from January 1, 1989. The Supreme Court did not rule that before January 1, 1989 there was any obligation to serve any defendant within 120 days. Nevertheless, after January 1, 1989 all cases, even those filed before January 1, 1989, had to be served within 120 days from the date of filing, or from January 1, 1989 if the case was filed before that date. Id. It is extremely important that claimants who may have a statute of limitations problem, effectuate service of process upon the defendant well within the 120 days time limit. Although the dismissal for failing to serve within 120 days is “without prejudice”, the dismissal will in effect be “with prejudice” if a valid statute of limitations defense exists. In order to avoid any unnecessary statute of limitations dismissal, trial practitioners should become accustomed to serving complaints promptly. The purpose of Rule 1.070(j) is to discourage individuals from filing law suits without actually prosecuting the claims. The Rule also promotes the rapid progression of civil claims. After the Pearlstein case was decided, it appears that the Supreme Court intends on enforcing the Rule. If a litigant is unable to serve within 120 days, then a motion requesting an extension of time to serve and showing good cause as to why service cannot or will not be accomplished on a timely basis should be filed with the trial court before the expiration of 120 days. Motions of this type will be freely granted by trial courts unless the trial attorney is abusing the system. Hernandez v. Page, 580 So.2d 793 (Fla. 3d DCA 1991). The trial court’s findings on the “Good Cause” issue are not appealable. DCA of Hialeah, Inc. v. Lago Grande One Condominum Ass’n, 559 So.2d 1178 (Fla. 3d DCA 1990). In light of the decision in Pearlstein v. King, trial practitioners should be very careful to comply with, and to enforce, the requirements of Rule 1.070(j). Failure to do so may mean serious problems.