In Evans v. Piedmont Natural Gas Co., Inc., No. M2014-01099-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 18, 2015), plaintiff asserted claims for property damage caused when sewage flowed into his home in 2013 allegedly due to a damaged sewer line. The undisputed facts in this case established that a gas line was installed on the relevant property in 1984 by Nashville Gas, that said gas line had not been repaired or serviced since 1984, and that no other “dig permits” had been issued for the property between 1980 and the 2013 sewage flooding. Plaintiff’s theory was that the sewage line was damaged during the gas line installation and that the gas company covered up the damage. The company who did the work in 1984 was Nashville Gas, which later merged into Piedmont Natural Gas Company, the named defendant.

Plaintiff in this case obtained a judgment in general sessions court, but on appeal to circuit court summary judgment was granted to defendant. As grounds for summary judgment, the trial court found that there was no evidence that the gas company “damaged the sewer line in question, repaired the sewer line in question or intentionally concealed any damage or repair[,]” that there was no proof that the alleged damage occurred during the gas line installation in 1984, and that there was no proof that the gas company “was ever aware of any damage to the sewer line at any time before 2013[.]” Further, the trial court found that the claim was barred by the four year statute of repose found in Tenn. Code Ann. § 28-3-202, which applies to improvements to real property. Finally, the trial court overturned the award of punitive damages to plaintiff, stating there was “no factual or legal basis for punitive damages here.”

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The Court of Appeals recently addressed the issue of which claims a parent who is not the primary residential parent may bring when his or her child has been injured. In Neale B/N/F Russell v. United Way of Greater Kingsport, No. E2014-01334-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. July 28, 2015), a child was injured at an activity at defendant’s facility. The mother and father initially filed a joint action as next friends of the child, but they voluntarily dismissed that case and father subsequently filed alone. Father, as next friend of child, sought damages for permanent impairment, paint and suffering, medical expenses, and loss of earning capacity. Pursuant to the family’s parenting plan, father was not the primary residential parent.

Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment asserting that father lacked standing to bring the claims. The trial court agreed and granted summary judgment, which the Court of Appeals reversed in part and affirmed in part.

Tenn. Code Ann. § 20-1-105(b) states:

 In case the father and mother of the minor child are living apart and one parent has exclusive legal custody of the child, the parent with legal custody has the sole right to maintain an action for the expenses and the actual loss of service resulting from an injury to the child, except that the noncustodial parent in such case shall have a right to maintain or join an action brought under this section, for the expenses resulting from an injury to the minor child to the extent the noncustodial parent has paid those expenses.

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In Phillips v. Casey, No. E2014-01563-COA-R9-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. July 21, 2015) plaintiff’s late husband was a patient of defendant doctor. Sometime in 2011 or 2012, defendant diagnosed husband with angioedema. Defendant also diagnosed husband with hypertension and prescribed a medication to treat that condition. On April 2, 2012, husband had a bilateral tonsillectomy performed by another doctor, and husband died that evening. Plaintiff received a copy of the autopsy report on July 3, 2012, which listed the primary cause of death as angioedema. On April 2, 2013, plaintiff filed suit against defendant doctor and his employer alleging that doctor was negligent by prescribing medicine to husband known to aggravate angioedema and by failing to inform the doctor performing the tonsillectomy of husband’s condition.

 

Before filing her first health care liability claim, plaintiff did not send the statutorily required pre-suit notices to the two named defendants. Accordingly, defendants filed a motion to dismiss. While that motion was pending, plaintiff voluntarily dismissed her claims without prejudice. Plaintiff then sent proper pre-suit notice that met all the statutory requirements and subsequently re-filed her suit. Defendants moved to dismiss again, asserting that plaintiff’s initial complaint was untimely and that she could thus not rely on the saving statute and that plaintiff could not re-file her suit in order to comply with the pre-suit notice requirements. The trial court denied the motion to dismiss but granted an interlocutory appeal to consider the following issue:

 

Whether Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-26-121 permits a plaintiff to take a voluntary nonsuit pursuant to Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure 41.01 with a motion to dismiss pending, resend notice of intent to the providers, and then refile a new action within the original statute of limitations or in accordance with the savings statute.

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In Newcomb v. State, No. M2014-00804-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. June 26, 2015), the Court of Appeals affirmed the Tennessee Claims Commission’s dismissal of a plaintiff’s premises liability action. Plaintiff fell down a flight of stairs in front of a state owned building. It was raining on the day of the injury, and plaintiff asserted that she reached out for the handrail but that it was out of reach. She argued that the handrail started one stair down from the top and that the steps had no nonskid material, both of which made the stairway unsafe.

At the Claims Commission hearing, the State called two witnesses who worked in facility administration at the building to testify. Both witnesses stated that the steps were the main entrance to the building which was used frequently, that any problems with the steps would have been “quickly noticed and corrected,” and that there had been no prior incidents on the steps. Based on this evidence, the Claims Commissioner dismissed plaintiff’s case, concluding that she “failed to prove that the steps and handrail were a dangerous condition or that, assuming they were dangerous, the State knew or should have known that they constituted a dangerous condition.” The Court of Appeals affirmed.

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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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