Articles Posted in Civil Procedure

While some parts of the Health Care Liability Act (HCLA) are making their way towards substantial compliance, the Court of Appeals recently reiterated that the requirement to file a certificate of good faith under Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-26-122 is mandatory. In Dennis v. Smith, No. E2014-00636-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. March 31, 2015), plaintiffs filed an HCLA claim against defendant. Defendant filed a motion to dismiss on the grounds (1) that plaintiffs did not comply with the pre-suit notice requirements because plaintiffs did not attach a HIPAA compliant authorization form to the notice letter, did not attach a list of all heath care providers receiving notice, and did not list the address of the claimant, and (2) that plaintiffs failed to file a certificate of good faith and failed to disclose the number of prior disclosure violations under § 29-26-122(d)(4). The trial court granted defendant’s motion to dismiss, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

On appeal, the Court focused solely on the certificate of good faith issue, as failure to comply with the certificate of good faith requirements leads to dismissal with prejudice and would therefore be dispositive of the case. Plaintiffs here “concede[d] in their brief on appeal that instead of filing a certificate of good faith in compliance with the statute, plaintiffs filed a statement signed by their expert.” According to plaintiffs, this filing “over-complied by providing more information than the statute requires.” Essentially, plaintiffs argued that they provided the required information plus some and thus should be excused for not technically complying with the statute. The Court firmly disagreed.

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Although summary judgment is often thought of as a tool for defendants, plaintiffs in personal injury cases should remember that motions for summary judgment can be beneficial and successful for them as well. In Bloomfield v. Metro. Govt. of Nashville and Davidson Co., No. M2014-00438-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. March 26, 2015), plaintiff was a firefighter employed by Metro. He responded to a call regarding an elderly patient who was in a wheelchair. When a paramedic arrived to assist in moving the patient, the plaintiff and the paramedic moved the patient in the wheelchair towards the door of the home, where they realized that the patient would have to be lifted to clear a door threshold and step down. Plaintiff was at the head of the chair while the paramedic was at the foot. Plaintiff told the paramedic to hold on a second and turned to get information from family members, but the paramedic lifted the foot of the wheelchair without communicating to plaintiff first. When plaintiff saw that the chair was about to tip backwards he grabbed it, injuring himself.

Because the paramedic was also employed by Metro, plaintiff sued Metro for the injuries he alleged to have sustained due to the paramedic’s negligence. Plaintiff used the deposition testimony of several Metro employees to show that there was a standard for lifting a patient in a wheelchair and that the person at the head of the wheelchair was responsible for initiating the lift. Further, plaintiff used the paramedic’s own deposition testimony, wherein he admitted that he violated procedure by lifting at the foot before everyone was ready. Relying on these facts, plaintiff successfully moved for summary judgment as to liability for the paramedic’s negligence, and a trial was conducted on damages only, wherein plaintiff was awarded the maximum amount allowed under the Governmental Tort Liability Act.

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The issue of whether a Tennessee plaintiff who nonsuits his or her first medical malpractice (now heatlh care liability)  complaint must give a second notice before re-filing is a closed matter given the recent ruling in Foster v. Chiles.   In the recent case of  Potter v. Perrigan, No. E2013-01442-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. March 26, 2015), just such a scenario played out.

Plaintiffs gave pre-suit notice on January 8, 2009; they filed their initial suit on April 8, 2009; then on September 8, 2009, they voluntarily dismissed the action. One year later, pursuant to the savings statute, plaintiffs filed a second complaint on September 8, 2010. Attached to this complaint was a certificate of good faith and copy of the previously filed pre-suit notice. Plaintiffs did not send defendants a second pre-suit notice before re-filing their claims. Upon motion of the defendant, the trial court dismissed for failure to comply with Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-26-121. The Court of Appeals initially reversed this decision, holding that “Plaintiffs fulfilled the notice requirement[.]” Defendant then appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which remanded the case for reconsideration in light of an opinion it issued in January, 2015.

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The judge’s in Tennessee’s 23rd Judicial District – Cheatham, Dickson, Houston, Humphreys and Stewart Counties – have adopted new rules of court for the circuit and chancery courts.

Among the new rules is a requirement that all civil cases except appeals from the general sessions court be mediated before they can be set for trial.  Rule 3.04.

The Tennessee Supreme Court will hear two health care liability disputes among four cases scheduled for oral arguments March 4, 2015 in Jackson, Tennessee, one of which will address an interesting civil procedure question.

The first case concerns the procedures required when filing a health care liability lawsuit. At the time the suit was filed, state law required a plaintiff to file a certificate within 90 days of the initiation of a lawsuit, confirming that the plaintiff has consulted with medical experts before filing the suit and stating whether the plaintiff’s lawyer has ever been in violation of the law requiring the certificate. In this case from Dyer County, the attorney, who had never violated the statute, filed the required certificate but did not state that he had zero prior violations of the statute. The defendants sought dismissal of the case based on that omission. The plaintiffs sought to dismiss the case with the option to refile it.

The trial court allowed the dismissal and the defendants appealed. The Supreme Court will consider whether the failure to indicate zero prior violations of the law constitutes a failure to comply with the law requiring the good faith certificate.  The case is Timothy Davis v. Michael Ibach, M.D. and Martinson Ansah, M.D. 

In the second health care liability case, the Supreme Court will consider whether to change the standard for granting and denying motions for summary judgment. Summary judgment is a decision by a trial court before the case is heard, based on a determination that there is no material dispute about the case’s facts.

In this case, a couple sued a Memphis health care center for failing to provide treatment during the mother’s pregnancy that, while not injuring the mother or harming her unborn child, could lead to complications in future pregnancies. The Court will determine whether the trial court properly granted the defendant’s summary judgment on some of the issues in the case. Michelle Rye  v. Women’s Care Center of Memphis, MPLLC.  

 The Judges in the Chancery and Circuit Courts for Williamson, Hickman, Perry and Lewis Counties have announced substantial changes to the local rules of court.  The changes were effective December 1, 2014.

Among other significant changes, the local rules  now require that one who objects to a motion filed by an opponent file written opposition to the motion. Rule 5.03(c).  Regular motions must be filed at least fourteen days before a hearing, and opposition to the motion filed and served at least 4 days before the hearing. 

           The Court of Appeals recently addressed the requirements of personal jurisdiction within the context of a misrepresentation case. In Wall Transportation, LLC v. Damiron Corp., No. M2014-00487-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Dec. 19, 2014), plaintiff was a Tennessee limited liability company and defendant was an Indiana corporation. Defendant had a website where it listed heavy-duty trucks for sale, and plaintiff located a truck on said website that it was interested in purchasing. Plaintiff called defendant’s Indiana location from Tennessee to inquire about the truck and was allegedly told certain things about its condition and mileage. Thereafter, plaintiff traveled to Indiana where he inspected the truck, negotiated a price, entered into a contract for sale, and took delivery of the truck.

            Several months later plaintiff filed suit in Robertson County, Tennessee alleging that defendant had made “false and fraudulent representations about the truck concerning its mileage, gear ratio, and the condition of the truck’s body[.]” Defendant made a special appearance for the sole purpose of filing a motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction under Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 12.02(2). The trial court granted this motion, finding specifically that defendant was an Indiana corporation, did not routinely do business in Tennessee, did not own property or have employees in Tennessee, did not direct advertising to Tennessee, did not purchase substantial amounts of materials from Tennessee, and did not routinely sell products to Tennessee customers. Further, the trial court found that all of the events related to the sale of the truck occurred in Indiana except for the initial phone call, which was initiated in Tennessee by plaintiff. Accordingly, the trial court held that defendant did not have the minimum contacts sufficient to establish personal jurisdiction.

            Based on the same facts cited by the trial court, the Court of Appeals affirmed the lack of personal jurisdiction finding. The Court explained that personal jurisdiction is based on the existence of minimum contacts, and that it can be established through either specific or general jurisdiction. Specific personal jurisdiction exists where a plaintiff can “show that the nonresident defendant has purposely established significant contact with the forum state and that the plaintiff’s cause of action arises out of or is related to those activities or contacts.” General personal jurisdiction requires a showing that the defendant had “continuous and systematic” contacts in the state. Here, neither requirements were met. The Court called defendant’s contacts with Tennessee “tenuous at best,” noting that it was not registered to do business in Tennessee and had no office, employees, vehicles, contact information, or bank accounts in Tennessee. Although defendant’s website could clearly be accessed from Tennessee, the Court specifically stated that “[t]he mere existence of a website is not a sufficient basis to support a finding that [defendant] could reasonably anticipate being haled into court [here].” (internal quotations omitted).

            According to the Court of Appeals, although the effects of the alleged misrepresentation were felt in Tennessee, the damages were sustained and able to be initially ascertained in Indiana. Plaintiff’s unilateral action in initiating the first phone call from Tennessee was not sufficient to bring defendant within the reach of Tennessee’s personal jurisdiction.

            In the current state of business affairs where almost all transactions have some online component, this case is a good reminder that it takes more than just access to a website to establish personal jurisdiction over a foreign defendant. When considering whether a misrepresentation suit can be maintained against an out-of-state party, this case offers valuable insight regarding the factors a court will examine and consider.

The Tennessee Court of Appeals recently took up a civil procedure issue of first impression in the state. In McGinnis v. Cox, No. M2014-00102-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 31, 2014), the issue presented was“[w]hether a Rule 68 offer of judgment may be revoked by the offeror within the ten-day time period for acceptance on the basis that the offeror ‘changed his mind.’” Following the weight of authority from federal and other state courts, the Court held that offers of judgment under Rule 68 are generally not revocable prior to the ten-day window expiring.

The McGinnis case arose from a car accident, and though no answer was ever filed, plaintiffs presented defendants with an offer of judgment for a specified amount or the policy limits of the applicable insurance policy. It was undisputed that the offer of judgment was made pursuant to Rule 68. There was some discrepancy between the date on the certificate of service and the date the offer was actually mailed, but defendants’ counsel received it on March 13, 2013. Counsel for both parties spoke two days later and agreed to forgo the deadline due to the postposed mailing. On that same day, however, plaintiff’s counsel faxed defendants’ counsel stating that the offer of judgment was revoked. The basis of this purported revocation was that the plaintiff had changed his mind. Subsequently, but on the same day and well within the ten-day time frame, defendants responded by fax that they accepted the offer of judgment in the amount of the policy limit. As there were no allegations of fraud or other good cause, the trial court found that the offer of judgment could not be revoked and thus granted a motion to enforce the judgment. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

In analyzing the issue, the Court determined that “the failure to include a provision allowing revocation [in Rule 68] is indicative of an intent not to allow revocation within the ten-day time period for acceptance.” The Court stated that adding a revocation provision would “deprive the offeree of the ten  days to consider the offer of judgment  the offeree was clearly intended to possess pursuant to Rule 68’s plain language.” The Court emphasized that the 10-day window was needed to give the offeree an appropriate amount of time to consider the offer, as rejecting such an offer subjects the offeree to certain risks. Allowing revocation would give the offeror the ability to force the offeree into a hasty decision.

Further, despite the fact that an accepted offer of judgment is interpreted under contract law, the Court found that contract law does not provide a basis for revoking a Rule 68 offer of judgment.  “While an accepted offer of judgment is enforced as any other contract, the offer itself is not a creature of contract; it is a mechanism created and governed by the Rules of Civil Procedure.” With this analysis, Tennessee fell in line with most state and federal courts in finding that Rule 68 offers of judgment are not revocable.

Because Tennessee’s Rule 68 allows either a plaintiff or defendant to make an offer of judgment, this is a vital case for all trial attorneys. An offer of judgment must be well thought out and carefully drafted, as once it is submitted to the opponent it cannot be revoked prior to the ten-day window expiring. Under the plain language of the rule as well as the guidance provided from other jurisdictions, this seems to be the correct result and the likely result that the Supreme Court would reach if it ever took up this issue. This holding, then, should govern practitioners’ behavior as they contemplate making offers of judgment in their cases.

             In Potter’s Shopping Center, Inc. v. Szekely, No. M2014-00588-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 8, 2014), the Court of Appeals relied on the recent Tennessee Supreme Court decision of Smith v. UHS of Lakeside, Inc., 2014 WL 3429204 (Tenn. 2014) to hold the trial court to a higher standard when entering an order granting partial summary judgment.

            The Potter’s Shopping case involved the building of a house and a claim for unjust enrichment by the supplier of materials against the owners of the home. The trial court granted partial summary judgment to plaintiff as to liability, but in its order, the court failed to state any legal grounds for its decision. Citing the Supreme Court’s Smith opinion, the Court of Appeals found that the trial court had failed to comply with Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56.04 when it failed to cite any evidence or argument it had considered in granting summary judgment. The Court noted that appellate courts were sometimes more lenient on this issue when the reasoning for the summary judgment could be gleaned from the record. In the present case, however, the record contained no transcript of the hearing and no other indication of the legal basis for the summary judgment decision.

            Finding that the summary judgment issue “involve[d] questions of law that require analysis and explanation,” the Court vacated the order granting partial summary judgment and remanded the case.

            This case appears to be the first example of the Court of Appeals reviewing a summary judgment order under the more detailed analysis set out by the Supreme Court in Smith. It is an interesting illustration of the higher standard likely to be enforced in the future, reminding attorneys and courts alike that grants of summary judgment that are not supported by legal reasoning provided on the record will be vulnerable on appeal.