Articles Posted in Claims Against Local Governments

In Holt v. City of Fayetteville, No. M2014-02573-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Mar. 15, 2016), the Court of Appeals affirmed dismissal of plaintiffs’ claims due to the city’s immunity under the public duty doctrine, a key limitation of the Tennessee Governmental Tort Liability Act.

According to plaintiffs, a police officer had arrested a suspect and placed her in a police car, yet failed to property restrain her. The suspect then stole the police car, drove “at a high rate of speed,” and collided with the car carrying plaintiffs, causing one person to die and three minors to be seriously injured. Plaintiffs brought suit against the city based on the negligence of the police officer in failing to properly restrain the suspect as she was taken into custody.

The city moved for dismissal, which the trial court granted, finding that “although the GTLA removed immunity for negligent acts of employees, Plaintiffs’ claims against the City were barred by the public duty doctrine.” The Court of Appeals affirmed this holding.

On appeal, the Court first looked to the GTLA. As a municipality, the city was entitled to immunity under the GTLA unless the situation fit into one of the enumerated exceptions in the statute. Plaintiffs argued that immunity was removed under Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-20-202, which “removes sovereign immunity ‘for injuries resulting from the negligent operation by any employee of a motor vehicle…while in the scope of employment.’” The Court rejected this argument, noting that plaintiffs in this case “only allege that Police Officer negligently restrained [suspect] after her arrest.” The Court concluded that they were “unable to create a claim of negligent operation of a motor vehicle solely from an allegation that Police Officer negligently restrained [suspect].”

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A recent appeal in a claim filed under the Health Care Liability Act (HCLA) turned on when the statute of limitations began to run and whether a doctor was an employee under the Governmental Tort Liability Act (GTLA).

In Rogers v. Blount Memorial Hospital, Inc., No. E2015-00136-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 29, 2016), plaintiff arrived at the Blount Memorial Hospital’s (“Hospital”) emergency room on September 8, 2012. He was treated by Dr. Bhatti (“Doctor”), who diagnosed him with and began treating him for Guillain-Barre Syndrome (“GBS”). According to plaintiff, he later found out he never had GBS, but instead had a spinal abscess, and the delay in diagnosis and treatment of the abscess “resulted in permanent and irreplaceable spinal cord damage.”

Plaintiff sent pre-suit notice of this suit to the hospital on August 20, 2013, and to the doctor on October 7, 2013. The complaint was then filed on December 13, 2013. Both defendants filed motions for summary judgment, both of which were granted by the trial court for different reasons.

For the doctor, the trial court granted summary judgment based on the statute of limitations, finding that plaintiff “was aware of facts sufficient to place a reasonable person on inquiry notice that he had suffered an injury as a result of Dr. Bhatti’s alleged misdiagnosis” on September 13, 2012, or at least by October 5, 2012. According to the trial court, plaintiff’s pre-suit notice sent on October 7, 2013, was thus sent outside the statute of limitations. Plaintiff argued, though, that “he had no reason to suspect that the initial diagnosis of GBS was incorrect until he was informed by another medical practitioner in mid-October 2012 that he never had GBS.” Plaintiff asserted that although he had continuing symptoms and was told in the hospital that he would be treated for a spinal abscess, he thought the symptoms and abscess were consequences of the GBS and was never told otherwise.

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In Jones v. Bradley County, No. E2015-00204-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 15, 2016), plaintiff sued Bradley County after she collided with a truck responding to a fire at a red-light intersection. Plaintiff had the green light at the intersection. Defendant, a fire rescue employee, was driving a Ford F-250 truck that was equipped with a siren and emergency lights. Defendant proceeded to turn left against a red-light, at which time plaintiff’s car collided with defendant’s truck, causing plaintiff significant injuries.

Bradley County relied on Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-8-108, which “provides privileges to emergency vehicle drivers under certain circumstances.” This statute allows emergency vehicle drivers to “proceed past a red or stop signal[,]” but still requires the driver “to drive with due regard for the safety of all persons[.]” While analyzing this case, though, the Court pointed out that that “[t]he obligation to exercise due care is, thus, not excused by the fact that the [emergency] driver is responding to an emergency call.” (citation omitted).

Bradley County further asserted that the sole cause of this accident was plaintiff’s failure to comply with Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-8-132, which provides that “upon the immediate approach of an authorized emergency vehicle making use of audible and visual signals…the driver of every other vehicle shall yield the right-of-way.” The Court pointed out that, when previously applying this statute, the Court has “noted the requirement of due care when entering an intersection even under authority of a green light” and “observed that if plaintiff should have heard the siren or should have seen the blue lights flashing, she…cannot evade her duty to yield to an emergency vehicle by saying that she did not hear and did not see because she did not look.” (citation and internal quotations omitted). In response to this argument, plaintiff pointed to the County Rescue Service operations manual, claiming that defendant violated the portions of the manual that stated that emergency drivers should “slow to a safe speed at which a stop could be made, and insure that all traffic has yielded” and “change the siren mode” when approaching an intersection. Plaintiff further argued that the evidence showed that defendant did not drive with due care through the intersection.

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In Parsons v. Wilson County, No. M2014-00521-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Sept. 3, 2015), plaintiff fell from the top bunk bed he was assigned while he was an inmate at Wilson County jail, and he sued the county under the Governmental Tort Liability Act (GTLA) for negligence in failing to assign him to a bottom bunk. According to plaintiff, he informed employees at the jail of his need for a bottom bunk during the intake procedure, citing “existing shoulder and neck injuries.” When he was assigned to a cell, though, he was assigned a top bunk. While getting out of the bunk after sleeping in it, he fell and injured his shoulder.

At trial, the county employee who oversaw management of the jail testified that “a procedure was in place to determine which inmates received a bottom bunk.” The procedure included forms completed during intake, which were then sent to a medical unit where nurses could “review the forms, meet with inmates, determine whether an inmate is able to be placed in the general population in that jail, and make the decision about whether or not the inmate’s medical needs necessitate that the inmate be assigned a bottom bunk.” Based on the testimony of this employee, plaintiff, and a physician, the trial court ruled in the County’s favor. The trial court ruled that the county was performing a discretionary function under the GTLA and thus retained immunity; that the county “had no duty in this case to provide Plaintiff with a bottom bunk;” that there was no breach of duty to plaintiff; that it was not foreseeable that plaintiff would jump from his bed; and that “Plaintiff was guilty of more than fifty percent (50%) of the fault.” While the Court of Appeals affirmed the ruling in the County’s favor regarding duty, it also reversed two of the trial court’s specific rulings.

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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.

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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In a recent case that fell under the Governmental Tort Liability Act (GTLA), the Tennessee Court of Appeals addressed the discretionary function exception to the GTLA as well as the findings a trial court must make to support a summary judgment decision.

In Lewis v. Shelby County, No. W2014-00408-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. April 17, 2015), two counselors who worked at a correctional facility in Shelby County sued for negligence related to injuries they sustained when attacked by an inmate. Plaintiffs alleged that on the night of the attack, the facility was understaffed; that they radioed their supervisor two times prior to the attack but he failed to appear; and that they made four “code red” calls for assistance during the attack, but that no one responded. Their suit was based on each of these three allegedly negligent acts.

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In Holder v. Shelby County, No. W2014-01910-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. April 21, 2015), a father sued the county for acts of negligence by a county employee that he alleged caused the death of his son. The son was involved in a car accident and subsequently arrested. Upon evaluation, the son was determined to have a mental condition that caused him to be a threat to himself and others. He was accordingly put into a special housing unit for unstable inmates, where policy dictated that a guard perform mandatory safety checks of all inmates every thirty minutes.

Officer Moore was on duty from 2:00 pm to 10:00 pm on the day the son was in the facility. Moore later admitted that he did not do any safety checks during that time, despite writing in the log book that he did and that at 9:16 pm all the inmates, including plaintiff’s son, were resting peacefully. After the 10:00 shift change, another deputy performed a safety check at 10:14 pm and found the son hanging in his cell by a bed sheet. The son still had a pulse but was not breathing, and he eventually died from his injuries.

Plaintiff filed suit alleging that his son died as a “result of Deputy Moore’s negligence and that Shelby County was vicariously liable.” The County filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim on the grounds that 1) the complaint alleged only intentional acts and 2) Officer Moore was not acting within the scope of his employment, either of which would be enough to find that immunity was not removed under the Governmental Tort Liability Act (GTLA). The trial court granted the County’s motion, finding that the complaint failed to allege any negligent acts and that Moore’s falsification of the logs was not within the scope of his employment. The Court of Appeals, however, reversed this decision.

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Tennessee cities, counties and other types of governmental entities are generally immune from suit for damages arising from personal injury and wrongful death claims.  However, a special law,  the Governmental Tort Liability Act (GTLA), allows Tennessee cites and counties to be sued  for pseronal injury or wrongful death under certain circumstances by removing that immunity.

One special circumstance where a city or county can be held responsible for a personal injury  is   where injury is caused by “the dangerous or defective condition of any public building, structure,…or other public improvement owned and controlled by such governmental entity.” Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-20-204(a). In order for liability to be removed pursuant to this statute, the governmental entity in question must have had actual or constructive notice of the dangerous condition. “[A] governmental entity will be charged with constructive notice of a fact or information, if the fact or information could have been discovered by reasonable diligence and the governmental entity had a duty to exercise reasonable diligence to inquire into the matter.” (Quoting Hawks v. City of Westmoreland, 960 S.W.2d 10 (Tenn. 1997)).

In Kee v. City of Jackson, No. W2013-02754-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. March 30, 2015), plaintiff was injured while walking across a wooden bridge from a parking area to the city fairgrounds during a flea market. The bridge was owned and maintained by the city. Plaintiff brought a premises liability claim against the city, and the trial court found for plaintiff, deeming the city liable but finding that plaintiff was 40% comparatively negligent and reducing her award accordingly. The city appealed, and the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s judgment.

Plaintiff alleged that the bridge had a “broken rotten runner,” “nails sticking up in more than one place,” and that “the planks were not even and that gaps exist between the boards in various places on the bridge,” as shown by pictures taken two days after the incident. Although there was no allegation or evidence that the city had actual notice of the dangerous condition of the bridge, the Court determined that plaintiff was proceeding under the “common occurrence” theory, meaning that “a plaintiff can show constructive notice by proving that a pattern of conduct, recurring incident, or general continuing condition caused the dangerous condition.” (Quoting Benn v. Public Bldg. Authority of Knox County, 2010 WL 2593932 (Tenn. Ct. App. June 28, 2010)). Continue reading

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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