A recent Court of Appeals case is a good reminder to pay close attention when drafting your complaint in a Governmental Tort Liability Act (GTLA) case. In Parrott v. Lawrence Co. Animal Welfare League, Inc., No. M2014-01241-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. June 25, 2015), plaintiff filed suit against two defendants regarding the allegedly negligent removal of her dogs from her property. After the dogs were removed, the County had some involvement and the dogs were housed at a Lawrence County jail, and one of the defendants therefore filed a third-party complaint against Lawrence County. Plaintiff subsequently amended her complaint to assert claims against the county as well.

The trial court granted the county’s motion to dismiss plaintiff’s claims, finding that the facts set out in her complaint were insufficient to state a claim under the GTLA, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. As to her negligence claim against the city, the complaint contained the following language:

As a direct and proximate result of the negligent, reckless and intentional acts or omissions of the Defendants, the Plaintiff has sustained damages and losses.

No additional negligence allegations were included, and no specific language regarding the county as a governmental entity was cited.

As the Court explained in its opinion, the GTLA removes immunity from governmental entities “for injur[ies] proximately caused by a negligent act or omission of any employee within the scope of his employment.” Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-20-205. The GTLA has been interpreted to require a complaint to “overtly allege that the tort was committed by an employee or employees of the governmental entity within the scope of his or their employment. A complaint which does not so state does not state a claim for which relief can be granted because the action is not alleged to be within the class of cases excepted by the statue from governmental immunity.”

Here, Plaintiff failed to allege that an employee of the county committed negligence while acting within the scope of his employment. Such an allegation is required by the GTLA, and dismissal of the case was therefore affirmed.

The lesson here is simple—when filing a claim that falls under the GTLA, pay special attention to the drafting and pleading requirements to avoid a fate like that of this plaintiff.

In a somewhat rare move, the Tennessee Court of Appeals recently overturned a trial court’s ruling for plaintiff in a negligence case. In Tenn. Farmers Mut. Ins. Co. a/s/o Couch v. Jackson Madison School System Bd. of Educ., No. W2014-02218-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. June 15, 2015), plaintiff was driving a crop sprayer on a narrow, rural, unlined road. Plaintiff saw a school bus turn onto the road traveling towards the crop sprayer, and both parties agreed that there was not room for both vehicles on the road. According to the trial testimony, the sprayer would have had time to stop but chose not to do so. Plaintiff testified that had he stopped, the accident probably would have been avoided. Instead, plaintiff moved the right tires of the sprayer off the road and, after clearing the bus, the shoulder gave way and the sprayer fell into a ditch, causing fairly significant property damage. Plaintiff sued the bus driver for negligence, alleging that there was more unpaved shoulder on the bus’s side of the road and that the bus driver did not take reasonable care to move his vehicle as far right as possible to avoid the accident.

The trial court ruled that defendant bus driver “was negligent in failing to take reasonable action to avoid an accident under the circumstances that existed at the time of the accident and that the [bus driver] could have foreseen an accident happening through the use of reasonable care.” The Court of Appeals, however, overturned this ruling.

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A recent Tennessee Court of Appeals case dealt with the distinction between health care liability cases and claims of ordinary negligence. In Coggins v. Holston Valley Medical Center, No. E2014-00594-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. June 15, 2015), plaintiff filed suit alleging that she tripped over a feeding tube that had been left near a friend’s bed that she was visiting at the defendant medical center. Plaintiff was not a patient at the time of the incident, but was merely visiting her acquaintance there. Before filing suit, plaintiff provided defendant with pre-suit notice under the HCLA. Accordingly, plaintiff relied on the 120-day extension of the statute of limitations provided by the HCLA. The trial court, however, determined that plaintiff’s suit sounded in ordinary negligence, specifically premises liability, and dismissed the case as untimely.

On appeal, the Court’s first task was to determine whether this case fell under the HCLA. Plaintiff’s fall occurred in August 2011. The Tennessee legislature adopted major amendments to the HCLA in 2011, including a definition of “health care liability action,” but that definition did not take effect until October 1, 2011, after plaintiff’s fall. The trial court, then, incorrectly used that definition to examine plaintiff’s case, as that portion of the HCLA was not applicable here. Instead, the Court of Appeals looked to the Supreme Court’s analysis in Estate of French v. Stratford House, 333 S.W.3d 546 (Tenn. 2011), to determine what type of claim plaintiff was asserting here.

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In Beverly v. Hardee’s Food Systems, LLC, No. E2014-02155-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. June 15, 2015), the Court of Appeals overturned summary judgment in a premises liability case based on the plaintiff’s potential ability to prove constructive knowledge of the dangerous condition. Here, plaintiff frequently dined at the restaurant in question. On one particular day, he came in through the side entrance to the restaurant and slipped in a puddle of vomit 19 seconds after entering. Apparently a child had vomited on the floor, and the child’s mother had not cleaned up the vomit or notified any employees. When plaintiff slipped, he was walking towards a table of his companions. These companions had seen or knew about the vomit but had also not notified any employees.

Security footage from the restaurant established that the vomit was on the floor for 3 minutes and 11 seconds before plaintiff fell. It also showed that plaintiff looked at the ground 2 seconds before he fell. The video showed that no employee was in the area of the vomit before the fall, but evidence established that “the service counter was less than 20 feet from where the child vomited and [plaintiff] fell.”

According to testimony from a witness, the vomit was in view of the employees at the service counter and “to anyone walking in the general area.” He said the puddle was approximately 12 to 15 inches in diameter. The manager of the restaurant testified that she did not know when the dining area was last inspected before the fall and that employees were “instructed to serve customers before completing any secondary tasks like cleaning.” The manager stated that employees were supposed to inspect the restaurant hourly or as permitted.

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In Kerr v. Thompson, No. W2014-00628-COA-R9-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. June 9, 2015), the Court of Appeals recently followed the Tennessee Supreme Court’s lead and held that a certificate of good faith (one must be filed with the complaint in medical malpractice cases) that did not state that the executing party had zero prior violations was still “fully compliant” with the Healthcare Liability Act (HCLA). This was the first opinion from the Court of Appeals following the Supreme Court’s binding decision on this issue in Davis v. Ibach, No. W2013-02514-SC-R11-CV (Tenn. May 29, 2015).

In Kerr, plaintiff filed a certificate of good faith but the certificate failed to state the number of prior violations as required by Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-26-122. The party executing the certificate, plaintiff’s attorney, had no prior violations. In its opinion, the Court quoted from the Davis case, stating that the HCLA “does not require disclosure of whether or not there have been any prior violations.…Logically, if there have not been any prior violations, there is no ‘number of violations’ to disclose.” Accordingly, the Court determined that plaintiff’s “failure to indicate the absence of any prior violations does not constitute a ‘failure…to file a certificate of good faith in compliance with Tennessee Code Annotated Section 29-26-122[.]” Plaintiff’s certificate of good faith was held to be fully compliant with the statute and the case was remanded to the trial court.

While this case adds nothing new beyond what the Supreme Court decided in Davis, it is good to see that this issue has been settled in this reasonable way. Plaintiffs who are dealing with this question should of course cite to Davis when making their case, but this new Court of Appeals opinion can lend additional support to the argument that stating that there have been zero prior violations is not required.

In Arden v. Kozawa, No. E2013-01598-SC-R11-CV (Tenn. June 30, 2015), the Supreme Court addressed the issue of whether a plaintiff in a medical malpractice ( now known as a “health care liability” ) lawsuit can send pre-suit notice via a commercial carrier like FedEx instead of through the U.S. mail. The Court’s sensible and clearly correct conclusion was that service by FedEx was allowed, finding that “[a]s long as a defendant is not prejudiced, it does not matter whether a commercial carrier or the U.S. Postal Service delivers the notice.”

In Arden, plaintiff gave proper notice in a timely fashion before filing a health care liability (HCLA) suit. The problem, as defendants pointed out in their motion for summary judgment, was that plaintiff sent the notice via FedEx Priority service. Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-26-121(a)(4) states that completion of the mailing requirements in the notice statute “shall be demonstrated by filing a certificate of mailing from the United States Postal Service stamped with the date of mailing and an affidavit of the party mailing the notice establishing that the specified notice was timely mailed by certified mail, return receipt requested.” Defendants did not assert that the notice was insufficient, untimely, or not received, but instead argued that plaintiff had failed to comply with the statutory pre-suit notice requirements by using FedEx instead of the post office. The trial court agreed, dismissing plaintiff’s case, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

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A recent Court of Appeals decision serves as a good refresher on the elements and defenses in a malicious prosecution case. In Preston v. Blalock, No. M2014-01739-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. May 29, 2015), tenant’s plastic surgery business had signed a lease to rent landlord’s office suite. Tenant stopped paying rent, and landlord filed a breach of contract claim for rent, build-out costs and attorneys’ fees. Landlord was awarded a default judgment, and tenant eventually paid to satisfy that judgment. Landlord subsequently filed another complaint seeking additional attorneys’ fees. Landlord then nonsuited that complaint but filed again seeking additional rent that he claimed had come due.

While this complaint was pending, tenant filed an abuse of process complaint against landlord. The factual basis for tenant’s complaint was that landlord had filed against tenant personally as a guarantor before filing against the business as the principal, that landlord had filed a document entitled partial satisfaction of judgment when tenant had paid the entire judgment, that landlord had given “false and misleading testimony at depositions,” and that landlord had filed “a multiplicity of claims in order to drive up the amount of attorney’s fees.” The trial court granted summary judgment to landlord in the abuse of process case.

After the abuse of process case was finalized, landlord filed a complaint alleging malicious prosecution against tenant and tenant’s lawyer. He asserted that “defendants filed the abuse of process suit…for an improper purpose and without probable cause in an attempt to gain an advantage in the pending breach of lease litigation[.]” The trial court granted summary judgment to tenant/defendant, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

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In Tennessee, the construction statute of repose begins to run when a project reaches substantial completion, which is when it can be used for its intended purpose. A flaw in the project will not prevent it from being substantially complete for statute of repose purposes, as recently demonstrated in the case of Raby v. Covenant Health, No. E2014-01399-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. June 9, 2015).*

In Raby, plaintiff worked at Methodist Hospital. The emergency room at the hospital was “substantially completed and opened in February of 2006.” Apparently a portion of lead-lined wall was left out when the radiology facilities were built, and plaintiff’s suit alleged that she was accordingly exposed to excessive radiation. In December 2013 a lead-lined wall was constructed, but during the entire time between 2006 and 2013 the facility was in use as intended. Plaintiff filed her suit in January 2014.

The trial court granted summary judgment to defendants based on the construction statute of repose found in Tenn. Code Ann. § 28-3-202 which requires that actions based on the construction of an improvement to real properly be brought within four years “after substantial completion of such an improvement.” The trial court found that the hospital radiology department was substantially completed in March 2006 when it became “available for its intended use as an emergency room.” Accordingly, the trial court held that plaintiff’s claim was untimely under the statute of repose, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

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In Hughes v. Henry Co. Med. Center, No. W2014-01973-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. June 9, 2015), plaintiffs filed a health care liability action against defendants Henry County Medical Center (“HCMC”) and Dr. Gold. The defendants filed motions to dismiss alleging that plaintiffs failed to comply with the pre-suit notice requirements in Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-26-121. Specifically, defendants asserted that plaintiffs did not include a HIPAA-compliant medical authorization as required by the statute because the authorization did not permit the providers receiving the notice to obtain medical records from each other. The form provided to defendants only allowed HCMC to use its own records in the suit.

Plaintiffs admitted that the form was technically deficient but argued that defendants were not prejudiced because “Dr. Gold only saw [plaintiff] at HCMC and had no records independent of HCMC’s records.” In fact, during the hearing on the motions to dismiss, “counsel for HCMC conceded that Dr. Gold had no records, and there was no actual prejudice in view of this fact.” Nevertheless, the trial court dismissed the action due to plaintiffs’ failure to substantially comply with the statutory requirements. Plaintiffs appealed this decision as to HCMC, and the Court of Appeals overturned the dismissal in favor of that defendant.

The Court rejected HCMC’s argument that prejudice need not be analyzed since the plaintiffs “plainly and entirely failed to substantially comply” with the statutory requirements. Instead, the Court noted that in Stevens v. Hickman Cmty. Health Care Servs., Inc., 418 S.W.3d 547 (Tenn. 2013), the Tennessee Supreme Court stated that “in determining whether a plaintiff has substantially complied with a statutory requirement, a reviewing court should consider the extent and significance of the plaintiff’s errors and omissions and whether the defendant was prejudiced by the noncompliance. Not every non-compliant HIPAA medical authorization will result in prejudice.”

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In Palmer v. Kees, No. E2014-00239-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. June 1, 2015), a recent premises liability case, plaintiff leased an apartment from defendant and sued defendant for injuries sustained when a board on the stairs leading from the apartment to the ground collapsed. The deck and stairs at the apartment had been built two days before plaintiff began his lease on March 1, 2011. According to plaintiff, during the fall of 2011 he complained to defendant landlord about some wood boards on the deck and stairs that were warped. Defendant hired a repairman to fix the warped boards, and the repairman stated that he left the deck and stairs in good condition. Plaintiff’s fall occurred on April 30, 2012, and he did not present any evidence that he informed defendant about problems with the stairs between the repair and the fall or that defendant otherwise had knowledge of any alleged problems preceding the fall.

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