In this action arising from a motor vehicle accident, once defense counsel (hired by the insurance company of the owner of the car which had been driven by the defendant named in plaintiff’s complaint) notified plaintiff that the named defendant had died, plaintiff’s counsel diligently pursued obtaining the paperwork she needed to have an estate opened for the named defendant, serving the estate with process, and moving to substitute the estate as the defendant. The circuit court erred by concluding a “reasonable time” for substituting a party under Rule 25, SCRCP, could not exceed 120 days.
We reverse the circuit court’s denial of plaintiff’s motion to substitute.
Rule 25 deals with the death of a party and the substitution of the proper party. It reads in part, “If substitution is not made within a reasonable time, the action may be dismissed as to the deceased party.” Although the analogous federal rule sets a limit of 90 days for filing a motion to substitute, our rule contains no such limit.
Our courts have not interpreted the meaning of a “reasonable time” in the context of Rule 25. No South Carolina case law suggests a “reasonable time” cannot exceed 120 days in this context.
Although not applicable to this case, Rule 60(b), SCRCP, suggests the definition of a reasonable time under our civil rules is not limited to 120 days. It provides a court may relieve a party from a final judgment, order, or proceeding for one of five reasons and that a motion for such relief “shall be made within a reasonable time, and for reasons (1), (2), and (3) not more than one year after the judgment, order or proceeding was entered or taken.” The language of this rule implies that under certain circumstances, a reasonable time can extend beyond one year. The “reasonable time” limit is discretionary and should be determined under the facts and circumstance of each case.
We hold the circuit court erred in concluding a reasonable time under Rule 25 could not exceed 120 days.
Next, we hold the record does not support the circuit court’s conclusion that plaintiff failed to move to substitute the special administrator of the named defendant’s estate within a reasonable time. Rule 25 requires that “[c]ounsel of record for [the] deceased party shall give notice to all other parties of the death of such party as soon as practicable after obtaining such knowledge and of the name and address of the proper parties who should be substituted.” The circuit court found the time began to run when plaintiff’s counsel received an email from defense counsel stating that the car owner’s family informed her that the named defendant-driver was deceased.
However, the emails from defense counsel lacked sufficient information to allow plaintiff to move for substitution at that time. Because no estate existed and the defendant-driver had no next of kin, the appointment of a special administrator was a prerequisite to plaintiff’s ability to pursue substitution.
The record shows plaintiff diligently pursued the required evidentiary support to submit to the probate court with her request for an order appointing a special administrator from the time she learned of the death until she filed her motion to appoint a special administrator. Plaintiff filed a petition for the appointment of a special administrator less than 40 days after she received the statement of death from DHEC, and she first moved to substitute the special administrator less than 30 days after he was appointed. Plaintiff filed her motion to substitute 47 days after serving the special administrator with the summons and complaint.
Based on the foregoing, the record contains no evidence that plaintiff’s delay in moving for substitution was unreasonable given that she diligently pursued the appointment and substitution of the special administrator once she had the information necessary to do so. Thus, we find the record does not support the circuit court’s conclusion that plaintiff failed to substitute within a reasonable time.
Finally, the record contains no evidence indicating defendant would be prejudiced if plaintiff were permitted to substitute the special administrator.
Bell v. Bentley (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-003-23, 9 pp.) (Jerry Vinson, J.) Appealed from Kershaw County Circuit Court (Robert Hood, J.) Thomas Jefferson Goodwyn for appellant; Sarah Rand McDaniel and Seth Thomas McDaniel for respondent. S.C. App.