Articles Posted in Claims Against the Government

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.

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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.

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In Crutchfield v. State, No. M2015-01199-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. April 18, 2016), plaintiff sued the State for alleged negligence regarding a fire alarm in her college dorm room at Tennessee Technological University (TTU), a state university. While the claims commission found for plaintiff and awarded her damages, the Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the plaintiff failed to prove proximate cause.

Plaintiff was hearing-impaired, with hearing loss of around 50% in her right hear and 75% in her left ear. When she started school at TTU her freshman year, she requested permission to live off campus but was denied. Instead, TTU worked with plaintiff to install a supplemental alarm system in her dorm room. To accommodate plaintiff, TTU gave her a single room in a dormitory and installed a SilentCall supplemental alarm system therein, which consisted of a strobe light and bed shaker that could be triggered either by a smoke detector or when a doorbell outside her room was pushed. If smoke were detected, a high pitch alarm that was mounted on the wall above her bed would sound as well. In addition to this supplemental alarm system, plaintiff’s room was also equipped with the standard alarm that all rooms had, which consisted of a speaker above her door. This alarm was the same in every room and would sound for fires or fire drills.

One morning while plaintiff was sleeping, she woke up to a high-pitch alarm and went outside. While she initially believed it was the supplemental alarm above her bed, it was later determined to be the standard alarm above her door that was sounding. Based on the time the alarm began and when plaintiff testified to have woken up, plaintiff slept through the alarm for around fifteen minutes before being awoken. After this incident, plaintiff experienced increased difficulty with her hearing, and a doctor diagnosed her with a noise-induced type injury that significantly reduced her hearing, leaving her essentially deaf without hearing aids.

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The Tennessee Court of Appeals has ruled that giving the State formal notice of a medical negligence (now “health care liability”) claim against an employee waives the right, if any,  to assert that claim against that employee in state court based on the same acts or omissions.

In Sumner v. Campbell Clinic PC, No. W2015-00580-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Mar. 29, 2016), the dispositive issue was whether plaintiff had waived his medical battery claim against defendant doctor by virtue of his filing with the Tennessee Division of Claims Administration, with the Court of Appeals finding that the claim was waived and affirming dismissal of the case.

Plaintiff was admitted to Campbell Clinic on July 19, 2011 to receive treatment to his injured right leg. Part of this treatment included a bone graft surgery, with the bone graft to come from his hip. Before surgery, plaintiff and his family informed the doctors, including defendant, that plaintiff did not want the graft to come from his right hip as he had recently had a procedure there. During surgery, however, an incision was made in the right hip which caused plaintiff’s peritoneum and small bowel to lacerate, resulting in extensive health problems.

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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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The Tennessee Bar Association has published my article about the recent Moreno decision and the unintended consequences of that decision.

The article is titled “Donald Margolis, “Moreno,’ and Unintended Consequences.”

An excerpt:

The Court of Appeals recently overturned a trial court’s decision that a somewhat recently reconstructed road constituted a dangerous road condition. In Church v. Charles Blalock & Sons, Inc., No. E2014-02077-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 9, 2015), plaintiffs filed suit on behalf of two women who died in an automobile accident. The facts showed that a highway had been reconfigured to bypass a town. Before the construction, highway drivers had no stop signs and simply proceeded on a curvy road. The new configuration, which included a stop sign at a “T” style intersection and a subsequent turn, opened on July 13, 2009. When it opened, the new roadway had a stop sign, a white stop bar on the pavement, and a “stop ahead” sign.

After the road opened, the State learned that many drivers were failing to stop at the new sign. In an email from a TDOT engineer to superintendent of maintenance, the engineer said that rumble strips had been suggested as a possible solution at the intersection. Rumble strips were never added, but changes were made following an accident in October 2009. In December, a junction sign was added before the intersection; large “stop ahead” signs were placed 320 feet before the intersection on both sides of the road; a directional sign with an arrow was placed before the intersection; two larger stop signs were placed on both sides of the road; and a two-headed arrow sign was placed across from the intersection.

On January 23, 2010, the driver here failed to stop her car at the stop sign and instead immediately proceeded to the right. She entered the path of oncoming traffic, causing a collision which killed her and her passenger. The evidence suggested that this was most likely her first time to drive through the newly constructed intersection, as she had been recovering from a back surgery.

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Several cases have now held that the 2011 amendments to the Health Care Liability Act (HCLA), which added language referring to governmental entities, allow plaintiffs bringing an HCLA claim under the GTLA to take advantage of the 120-day extension of the statute of limitations after giving proper pre-suit notice. Recently, though, a plaintiff whose claim arose before the enactment of this amendment tried to creatively argue that she too should be allowed the extra 120 days.

In Miller ex rel. Miller v. Cookeville Regional Med. Ctr., No. M2014-01917-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Sept. 29, 2015), plaintiff’s husband had died after being given an excessive dose of blood thinners. The husband died on May 18, 2010.   Plaintiff gave pre-suit notice on May 11, 2011, and then filed suit on September 8, 2011, one year and 113 days after the death. Upon motion by the defendant, the trial court dismissed the claim as untimely, relying on the Tennessee Supreme Court’s decision in Cunningham v. Williamson County Hospital District, 405 S.W.3d 41 (Tenn. 2013). In Cunningham, the Supreme Court held that the HCLA as it existed prior to the 2011 amendments did not allow GTLA plaintiffs to take advantage of the 120-day statute of limitations extension.

In the present case, the Court noted that “the relevant date in determining whether the 2011 amendment to the HCLA applies to a case is the date on which the cause of action accrues.” Since the injury here occurred in May 2010, well before the October 1, 2011 enactment date of the 2011 amendment, “the statute of limitations was not extended by giving pre-suit notice[.]”

In Moreno v. City of Clarksville, No. M2013-01465-SC-R11-CV (Tenn. Sept. 18, 2015), the central issue surrounded the interplay of the 90-day window provided by Tenn. Code Ann. § 20-1-119 to add a non-party named by a defendant as a comparative tortfeasor and the process for filing a claim under the Tennessee Claims Commission Act.

Plaintiff was injured when a tree fell on his car as he was driving across a bridge on December 24, 2009. Within one year of the accident, plaintiff followed the procedure outlined by the Claims Commission and filed written notice of his claim against the State of Tennessee with the appropriate authority, the Division of Claims. The Division of Claims neither honored nor denied plaintiff’s claim within the 90-day period set out in the Claims Commission Act, and the claim was accordingly transferred to the administrative clerk of the Claims Commission. Plaintiff received an order from the Claims Commissioner on March 30, 2011, stating that he needed to file a complaint, which he did on April 14, 2011. The State filed an answer to the complaint on May 18, 2011, but did not mention comparative tortfeasors. On September 18, 2012, sixteen months after the initial answer, however, the State moved to amend its answer to name the City of Clarksville as being comparatively at fault. Pursuant to this new answer, plaintiff initially filed a motion to amend his complaint in the Claims Commission to add the City of Clarksville. He later, however, withdrew this amendment and instead filed suit against the City of Clarksville in Circuit Court.

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