Articles Posted in General Negligence Action

In Richardson v. Trenton Special School Dist., No. W2015-01608-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. June 27, 2016), the Court of Appeals reversed summary judgment in a negligence case due to fact issues surrounding the issue of foreseeability.

The underlying facts of this case were quite disturbing—a six-year old kindergarten student was allegedly sexually assaulted five times by another six-year-old student in an elementary school bathroom stall. It was undisputed that before this incident, another student had been sexually assaulted by a peer at this school, though that incident involved first or second graders in the after-school care program. During the after-school incident the two children were in the bathroom alone, but in the incident underlying this case other students were in the bathroom and the teacher was in the hallway between two bathrooms. It was further undisputed that after the after-care assault, “the elementary school changed its bathroom policy in the after-school care program in direct response to the prior assault such that teachers accompany students into the bathrooms. However, the school did not change its policy concerning the main school day.” At the time of the kindergarten assault, the school had a policy stating: “CHILDREN MUST NEVER BE OUT OF SIGHT!!! Monitor your students in the halls and bathrooms.”

The victim’s parents filed suit, alleging that the school “was negligent because its employee had violated the school’s policy and that this violation resulted in a failure to protect [the child].” The defendant school moved for summary judgment, with the trial court granted, finding that the assault was not reasonably foreseeable. The Court of Appeals, however, reversed.

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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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In 2007, the Tennessee legislature enacted Tenn. Code Ann. § 44-8-413, which addresses injuries caused by dogs. This statute draws a distinction between (1) injuries caused by a dog “running at large” and (2) injuries caused by a dog on its owner’s property. For the latter group, the statute provides that “the claimant shall be required to establish that the dog’s owner knew or should have known of the dog’s dangerous propensity,” and a recent case gave the Tennessee Court of Appeals its first opportunity to interpret this language.

In Moore v. Gaut, No. E2015-00340-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Dec. 30, 2015), plaintiff went to defendant’s house to service a satellite dish. Defendant had a great dane fenced in his backyard. According to plaintiff, he was greeted by defendant’s father, who told him that the dog was “gentle” and “jovial” and encouraged him to greet the dog. Plaintiff alleged that when he went to get tools out of his vehicle, which was parked next to the fence, the dog “jumped up, leaned over the fence and bit [his] face.” Plaintiff filed suit against defendant dog owner.

Defendant moved for summary judgment, which he supported with an affidavit stating that his dog “was in a fenced-in area of his backyard” and that the “dog [had] never bitten anyone or attacked anyone.” In response, plaintiff filed his own affidavit detailing the incident and reiterating that he was never warned that the dog might act aggressively. The trial court held that “the undisputed facts established that there had been no previous history of the dog biting, attacking, or acting aggressively.” Instead, the trial court ruled that the evidence showed the opposite—that the dog had never bitten or attacked anyone, and that there was no evidence it had engaged in playful behavior that could be dangerous. Finding that there was no evidence to “put the defendant on notice that the dog was dangerous,” summary judgment was granted to defendant, which the Court of Appeals affirmed.

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A recent Court of Appeals case reminds plaintiffs’ attorneys of the importance of diligently reading any answer filed and working quickly to remedy problems related to the proper party being named and/or service of process. In Urban v. Nichols, No. E2014-00907-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Sept. 4, 2015), plaintiff filed a negligence claim after injuring her foot and heel while using a waterslide at Willow Brook Lodge. In her complaint, filed on July 11, 2012 (which was exactly one year to the date from her injury), plaintiff named Robin Nichols and Willow Brook Lodge as defendants. It was undisputed that the complaint was only served, however, by personal service to Robin Nichols’s son.

The named defendants filed an answer on August 27, 2012. Therein, they asserted that the Lodge was actually owned by Accommodations by Willow Brook Lodge, LLC and that Ms. Nichols was not an owner. Further, they plead “insufficiency of process and insufficiency of service of process.”

Plaintiff’s counsel sent a letter to counsel for defendants on November 7, 2012, requesting permission to amend the complaint. Defendants responded by letter one week later denying the request. Plaintiff’s counsel took no further action in the case until February 7, 2013, again sending a letter requesting to amend the complaint to defendants. Defendants’ attorney sent another denial on July 22, 2013. Finally, on August 21, 2013, plaintiffs filed a motion to amend with the trial court. In response, defendants filed a motion for summary judgment on the grounds that the “failure to correctly serve process on either Ms. Nichols or the Lodge required the dismissal of the action.” The trial court granted summary judgment to defendants, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

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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 Hayes v. Coopertown’s Mastersweep, Inc., No. W2014-00783-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. April 17, 2015), plaintiffs brought a negligence claim based on the alleged negligent inspection of their fireplace. Two issues were addressed on appeal—whether defendant owed a duty of care to plaintiffs and whether this case fell under the four-year statute of repose applicable to injuries to real property related to deficient design and construction.

In 2000, plaintiffs purchased a house built in 1964 that had a fireplace, which plaintiffs had remodeled by a third party. Part of this remodel included lowering the firebox to be flush with the floor. The remodeled fireplace did not work well, allowing smoke to escape into the den, the upper floors and the attic. Plaintiffs thus hired defendant to inspect the fireplace and determine what was causing the smoke issues. Plaintiffs did not tell defendant about the previous fireplace renovations or that the firebox had been lowered. Defendant performed the inspection requested, and part of the defendant’s work “went beyond the inspection that [plaintiffs] contracted for,” including inspecting beneath the fireplace from the crawlspace and drilling into the fireplace to determine whether any combustible material was coming into contact with the fireplace. Because of the design and construction of the fireplace, however, “there were areas underneath the fireplace that could not be seen or inspected” by defendant. Defendant made certain redesign recommendations based on his inspection, and plaintiffs hired defendant to perform the recommended work. Defendant completed this work on October 8, 2003. Subsequently, on January 17, 2005, plaintiffs’ home was damaged by fire when “wooden floor joists that had been in contact with the firebox ignited from exposure to heat generated by the fireplace,” a problem related to the first remodel done by the unnamed third party.

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Under what circumstances can a franchisor be held vicariously liable for torts that occur on the premises of a franchisee?

A relatively recent court opinion has an excellent discussion of the law in this area, addressing not only the law of the state where the cause of action arose (New Mexico) but also the law from around the nation.  In Estate of Anderson v. Denny’s, 2013 WL 6506319 (D.N.M. Nov. 13, 2013) the court held that a genuine issue of material fact existed on the issue of whether the franchisor was vicariously liable for the franchisee’s alleged negligence, turning on the issue of right of control.


The plaintiff in Akers v. McLemore Auction Co., LLC, No. M2012-02398-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. May 27, 2014) chose to hire an auction company to sell his real and personal property that the plaintiff valued at more than $350,000, but chose to go pro se in suing the auction company. That might explain why the appellate opinion needed ten pages to summarize – and affirm – the trial court’s Tenn. R. Civ. P. 12.02(6) dismissals on the plaintiff’s four claims against more than twenty defendants.

One potentially helpful nugget for other cases is the appellate court’s discussion of the dismissal of claims against an individual defendant affiliated with the auction company. The plaintiff alleged, in pertinent part, that the individual defendant was a “person” who called himself the auction company’s President, but who was really the sole member of the auction company’s LLC. The trial court dismissed the claims against the individual defendant under Rule 12.02(6), finding there were no facts to support the plaintiff’s allegation that the defendant “was acting outside his capacity as agent for [the auction company] at any time.”

The Court of Appeals concluded that the trial court erred on this point. A trial court is bound to review only the complaint for purposes of Rule 12.02(6), and nothing in the complaint alleged that the individual defendant was ever acting on behalf of the auction company. For this reason, he should not have been dismissed.

A recent opinion of the Tennessee Court of Appeals in case reminds us that a company’s internal policies, while not dispositive, are relevant to the standard of care for its employees.

After a bench trial, the trial court found Defendant was not negligent, and the Court of Appeals reversed based on the testimony of Defendant’s employees.  Defendant provides door-to-door transportation services, with many of the passengers elderly or disabled. Defendant’s driver testified that he was aware of Defendant’s policies and procedures, particularly those requiring the driver to be aware of any walking surfaces that the passenger must travel upon, and those requiring the driver to keep a passenger within the driver’s line of vision in case the driver needs assistance. The driver also admitted that Defendant had a written policy requiring the driver to stay close to the passenger while walking in case the passenger needed assistance.

In this case, the driver testified that he noticed before picking up the passenger that there was frost on the ramp the passenger would use to exit her home. While the passenger was on the ramp, the driver turned back into the passenger’s home to get a bag for her. When he turned back, he saw that she was falling but she was six to eight feet away from him, which the driver admitted was not close enough to provide assistance. The Court of Appeals found this evidence preponderated against the trial court’s finding that the driver was not negligent.