Articles Posted in Claims Against Local Governments

In Peters-Asbury v. Knoxville Area Transit, Inc., No. E2015-01816-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 8, 2016), the Court of Appeals overturned a bench trial negligence verdict.

Plaintiff was a student at the University of Tennessee with limited mobility due to a previous knee injury. For students with disabilities, UT provided transportation through an agreement with Knoxville Area Transit, Inc. (“KAT”), who was the defendant in this case. On the morning of the incident, plaintiff called the KAT operator and asked to be taken to the Office of Disability Services. Disability Services was located in Dunford Hall, which had a main entrance and a side entrance. The side entrance was closest to the Disability Services Office. A bus came to pick up plaintiff, and she repeated to the driver that she wanted to be taken to Disability Services. Accordingly, the driver took her to the side entrance of Dunford Hall. As plaintiff took her first step off the bus, she fell and fractured her right ankle. Plaintiff suffered many complications from the fall, eventually withdrawing from UT for the semester and moving to a single-level home with her family, and having surgery more than a year and a half after the fall.

Plaintiff brought this negligence action against defendant, asserting in her original complaint that the driver “had acted negligently in dropping [plaintiff] off at the side entrance to Dunford Hall, which [she] asserted was ‘an inappropriate and unreasonably dangerous location,’ rather than at the building’s main entrance.” After discovery, during which defendant produced a low-quality video of the incident taken from inside the bus, plaintiff amended her complaint to also allege that the driver negligently caused her to fall “by moving the bus forward as she was exiting the bus onto the pavement.”

During the trial, evidence was presented regarding both negligence theories. On her theory that she was dropped off in an unsafe area, plaintiff “testified that the main entrance was the safer of the two locations for mobility impaired students because the area around it was flat and clear, while the area around the side entrance was inclined and surrounded by landscaping.” Plaintiff alleged that debris could wash down onto the side entrance, but admitted on cross-examination that she did not step on any debris when she fell.

Continue reading

In Fowler v. City of Memphis, No. W2015-01637-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 11, 2016), the Court of Appeals analyzed a case falling under the GTLA, ultimately holding that while plaintiff appeared to be making a premises liability claim, the case actually fell under a different provision of the Act.

Plaintiff was injured when he fell into an uncovered water meter in a sidewalk near his home. Plaintiff filed suit against various entities, but the one at issue on this appeal was Memphis Light, Gas, and Water. “According to the complaint the uncovered water meter was a dangerous condition of which [defendant] had actual and constructive knowledge.”

Defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that it “had no notice that the water meter box cover had been tampered with or that a dangerous condition existed at the location of [plaintiff’s] fall.” Defendant asserted that the water meter at issue had been taken out of service in 2007, and a cover had been put over it.

Continue reading

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].”

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading