Bench Trial Judgment for Plaintiff Reversed Due to Lack of Factual Findings

In Omni Ins. Co. v. Nickoloff, No. E2015-01450-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. June 2, 2016), the Court of Appeals overturned a trial court’s finding of negligence when a vehicle struck a pedestrian walking on a sidewalk.  Specifically, it was asserted that plaintiff  was walking west on a sidewalk at 10:40 p.m., and defendant was driving west on the road beside the sidewalk. Defendant’s vehicle hit plaintiff, and plaintiff asserted that defendant was liable on the theories of negligence and negligence per se, “due to his violation of Tennessee Code Annotated 55-8-136, which provides in pertinent part that ‘every driver of a vehicle shall exercise due care to avoid colliding with any pedestrian upon any roadway.’”

After a bench trial, the trial court found defendant liable. In its order, the trial court stated: “There was an automobile collision… Plaintiff’’s insured…was walking on the sidewalk. Defendant…acknowledged that he hit [plaintiff] with his vehicle.” Defendant appealed and submitted a statement of the evidence, which was “approved by the trial court as a true and accurate record of the proceedings” and received no objection by plaintiff. The statement of evidence provided only that:

  • Plaintiff was walking on the sidewalk;
  • Plaintiff testified that “the next thing she remembered was waking up in the hospital;”
  • Plaintiff testified that “she had absolutely no recollection of the events leading up to her hospital admittance;”
  • Defendant “adamantly testified that he never left the confines of [the road];”
  • Defendant testified that while he was driving on the road, plaintiff “came into contact with the passenger side front of his vehicle.”

In considering this appeal, the Court of Appeals cited Rule 52.01 of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure, which “requires trial courts to issue findings of facts and conclusions of law” after a bench trial. Here, The Court pointed out that there are five elements to a negligence claim, but that “the trial court did not address the elements of negligence…nor did the trial court make any findings regarding these elements.” Defendant argued that he was not shown to have breached his duty of care to plaintiff, as there was no evidence that he left the roadway or was not driving carefully, and that the trial court’s ruling should be overturned. The Court of Appeals agreed. The Court stated that the “factual findings do not fully satisfy the negligence inquiry because they do not establish that [defendant] breached of a duty of care….” The Court held that “the trial court did not expressly determine that [defendant] was driving in a negligent matter when the accident occurred or make sufficient findings to support that determination,” and it concluded that the “the trial court’s judgment must be reversed because there is no proof in this record to support the trial court’s determination that [defendant] should be held liable.”

Likewise, on the negligence per se claim, the Court pointed out that there are three elements a plaintiff must prove. In this case, the Court determined that “the trial court made no findings with regard to the [required] elements. Further, the record contains no proof of such elements.” Accordingly, the trial court’s judgment was reversed.

This case is important for plaintiffs to note—it illustrates just how vital it is to not only work for a positive judgment in a bench trial, but afterward also ensure that the judge’s order reflects the necessary findings of fact to support the judgment. We’ve seen summary judgment rulings be overturned due to a lack of factual findings, and here we see a plaintiff who thought she had won her case end up with a complete reversal. The Court here noted that plaintiff “attempt[ed] to assert other facts that it contend[ed] were adduced at trial but which [did] not appear in the statement of the evidence. This Court, however, cannot consider any facts not established in the appellate record.” You don’t want to be the lawyer who wins at trial, fails to get all the facts into the appellate record, and then has to explain to the client why the verdict has been reversed. Let this case be a cautionary tale.