Articles Posted in Limitation of Actions

The Court of Appeals recently examined whether the sickness and death of a lawyer’s child constituted extraordinary cause under the HCLA, finding that it did in fact excuse noncompliance with the statute.

In Kirby v. Sumner Regional Medical Center, No. M2015-01181-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. July 12, 2016), plaintiff was treated at the defendant hospital in June 2013, and plaintiff alleged that the treatment she received fell short of the required standard of care. Well before the one-year statute of limitations, on January 31, 2014, plaintiff’s counsel sent a fax to defendant regarding the claim. No other correspondence was sent, but on the day the one-year statute of limitations was to expire, plaintiff filed suit. Plaintiff attached a certificate of good faith to her complaint, but she admittedly had not served the statutorily required pre-suit notice with attached HIPAA release.

Defendant moved to dismiss the case based on the lack of pre-suit notice. In response, plaintiff’s counsel pointed out that his son was born on March 6, 2014, and subsequently died on June 20, 2014, just days before the statute of limitations was set to expire on this claim. Counsel stated that “[f]or the few months my son lived, there were frequent periodic indications that each day could be his last, including a few serious hospitalizations.” In his memorandum opposing dismissal, plaintiff’s counsel asserted:

In Haynes v. Bass, No. W2015-01192-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. June 9, 2016), plaintiff brought suit against her ex-husband, a mortgage company, a title company and an attorney claiming she suffered damage when a home that was supposed to be titled to her alone was sold at auction. Plaintiff and defendant ex-husband had previously been married, and in December 2007 they executed a postnuptial agreement stating that, once another property sold which was already under contract, a residence in Collierville that was being purchased by plaintiff would be plaintiff’s “sole and separate property.” After the sale, however, the money was split between the husband and wife and the deeds were allegedly not recorded as planned in the agreement. Plaintiff alleged that her name was forged on the deeds of trust for the property.

In 2014, the couple got divorced in Arkansas. During the divorce proceeding, plaintiff was supposed to be paying the mortgage on the residence, as she was living in it alone, but it was discovered that she had failed to pay and owed $51,000. The Arkansas court entered an order holding plaintiff in contempt for failing to pay the mortgage and stating that plaintiff could pay defendant husband $55,000 or the property would be sold by a receiver at auction. After plaintiff failed to pay, the residence was sold, and plaintiff filed suit seeking damages for the loss of the property.

In this Tennessee action, plaintiff brought several claims, including fraud, negligent misrepresentation, negligence and civil conspiracy. The trial court dismissed plaintiff’s complaint in total for failure to state a claim, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

Against her ex-husband, plaintiff advanced claims of fraud and negligent misrepresentation, among other contract-based claims. Both of these causes of actions, though, require the plaintiff to suffer damages due to the misrepresentations. Here, the Court found that the evidence “reveal[ed] that [plaintiff] lost the residence, and the value of all of the improvements she made to the property, because of her failure to pay the mortgage, which resulted in the Arkansas court ordering the property to be sold.” Even if plaintiff’s allegations were taken as true, the Court held that “the allegations are not sufficient to make out a claim against [defendant] because the damages sustained by [plaintiff] are not related to [defendant’s] alleged breach of the postnuptial agreement.”

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In a recent legal malpractice case, the Tennessee Court of Appeals held that the one-year statute of limitations had run and that the case should accordingly be dismissed in total.

In Story v. Bunstein, No. E2015-02211-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. June 9, 2016), plaintiffs had previously been represented by defendant lawyers in a lender liability suit against three defendants. The timeline of the underlying litigation included the following:

  • On May 7, 2013, the trial court granted summary judgment to two defendants.
  • Lawyer “allegedly advised [plaintiffs] that he would fie a motion to correct what he perceived was the erroneous grant of the motion for summary judgment.”
  • Layer filed a motion to alter or amend, but no hearing was ever set for that motion.
  • “Shortly before trial on the remaining claims, [lawyer] allegedly informed [plaintiffs] that their damages evidence was not ready for trial” and recommended voluntary dismissal.
  • Underlying suit was voluntarily dismissed on November 13, 2013, and was not re-filed.

This legal malpractice claim was filed on September 3, 2014.

Defendants filed a motion to dismiss based on the statute of limitations. In response, plaintiffs argued that “the statute of limitations did not begin to run until the order of dismissal as to [plaintiff’s] remaining claims was entered on November 13, 2013.” The trial court held that the statute of limitations barred some of plaintiffs’ malpractice claims, but that plaintiffs’ “allegations with respect to the November 2013 voluntary dismissal of their remaining claim in the underlying case is a discrete allegation of alleged legal malpractice which is not barred by the statute of limitations.” The Court of Appeals disagreed, holding that the entire case was in fact time-barred.

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In Credential Leasing Corp. of Tenn., Inc. v. White, No. E2015-01129-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. May 17, 2016), plaintiff lender brought various claims against defendant lawyer, including claims for professional negligence and fraudulent misrepresentation, related to the drafting of a deed of trust. Defendant attorney prepared a 2010 deed of trust in favor of plaintiff, conveying title to a parcel of land owned in part by defendant’s brother. Defendant stated that he would do the title work, prepare the deed of trust, and issue title insurance for the property at issue, though he never actually issued any title insurance.

The property was actually owned by the brother and another man as tenants in common. In 2007 a deed of trust had been executed on the same property to secure a loan from another bank, and defendant attorney had notarized the signatures of the grantors (and correct property owners) on that deed. Despite the fact that the brother only owned a half interest in the property, the 2010 deed of trust did not mention the other owner’s interest. Instead, it listed the brother and the brother’s wife as grantors, even though the wife had no interest in the property. Further, while the warranty deed and previous deed of trust used a “lot and block” description of the property, the 2010 deed of trust described the property by metes and bounds.

In 2011, the brother declared bankruptcy. Plaintiff received a notice of the bankruptcy filing, which showed the other creditor having a first lien, which plaintiff was already aware of. Almost two years later, however, plaintiff learned that the property had been sold at foreclosure, and plaintiff had not received notice. Only after learning of this sale did plaintiff find out that the brother had only owned a one-half interest in the property, and that their deed of trust thus had not covered the entire property.

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 2011, the Tennessee legislature amended Tenn. Code. Ann. § 28-1-106 regarding tolling of statutes of limitations, replacing the language “of unsound mind” and “after the removal of such disability” with “adjudicated incompetent” and “after legal rights are restored.” The current version of the statute reads:

If the person entitled to commence an action is, at the time the cause of action accrued, either under eighteen (18) years of age, or adjudicated incompetent, such person, or such person’s representatives and privies, as the case may be, may commence the action, after legal rights are restored, within the time of limitation for the particular cause of action, unless it exceeds three (3) years, and in that case within three (3) years from restoration of legal rights.

Recently, the Tennessee Court of Appeals analyzed the meaning of this language change, marking the first time a state court has interpreted the new terms.

 

In Johnson v. UHS of Lakeside, LLC, No. W2015-01022-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Dec. 23, 2015), plaintiff filed an HCLA claim related to her late husband’s fall at defendant’s facility. It was uncontested that she gave pre-suit notice more than one year after the cause of action accrued, and that she filed the complaint more than one year and 120 days after the same. Defendant moved to dismiss the claim based on the statute of limitations. Plaintiff opposed the motion on the basis that her husband met the criteria of § 28-1-106 and that the statute of limitations was thus tolled. The trial court dismissed the action, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

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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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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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When a plaintiff files a auto or other personal injury lawsuit, he may not be aware of all the potential defendants that should be named. Fairly often, a plaintiff may seek leave to amend his complaint and add a defendant even after the statute of limitations on the underlying claim has passed, usually citing the discovery rule as justification for this allowance. In a recent negligence case, the Tennessee Court of Appeals explored some of the limits on such allowances.

In Smith v. Hauck, No. M2014-01383-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. March 25, 2015), plaintiffs were in a car struck from behind by a vehicle driven by defendant on an interstate exit ramp. The accident occurred on June 25, 2012, and at the time there was no indication that defendant was driving in the course of his employment—i.e., neither defendant nor the police report mentioned this fact, and he was driving his personal car with no employer insignia. Plaintiffs filed a negligence suit on June 7, 2013, within the one-year statute of limitations, which defendant answered on August 26, 2013. Defendant’s answer did not state or allude to the fact that he was driving on employer business at the time of the accident. Four days later, plaintiffs served interrogatories and requests for production of documents on defendant. These discovery requests included items seeking information related to defendant’s employer and his purpose for driving at the time of the accident. When defendant’s responses were six weeks past due, plaintiffs filed a motion to compel on November 8, 2013. Defendant responded to the interrogatories on December 4, 2013, and for the first time in those responses stated that “he was traveling to St. Thomas Hospital to participate in surgery as part of his employment with St. Jude Medical.” On the same day they received these responses, plaintiffs filed a motion to add St. Jude Medical as a defendant. The motion was granted and plaintiffs filed their amended complaint on December 20, 2013. St. Jude then filed a motion to dismiss based on the one-year statute of limitations, which the trial court granted, but the Court of Appeals overturned.

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           In Redmond v. Walmart Stores, Inc., No. M2014-00871-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Dec. 22, 2014), plaintiff filed a premises liability claim after she slipped and fell on a puddle of water in a Nashville Wal-Mart. The incident occurred on August 12, 2012, but during plaintiff’s first conversation with her attorney he recorded that it had occurred on August 13th. On August 13, 2013, plaintiff’s attorney filed the complaint in this action.

            Defendant moved for summary judgment on the basis that the action was time-barred by the one-year statute of limitations. The trial court granted the motion. Plaintiff appealed, asserting that the discovery rule tolled the statute of limitations and that “the trial court should have granted an enlargement of the statute of limitations under Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 6.02.” The Court of Appeals, however, rejected both of these arguments and affirmed the trial court’s decision.

            Plaintiff’s first argument was that even though she was injured in the initial fall, she had additional injuries that she could not have discovered on the day of the incident, and thus the statute of limitations should have been tolled by the discovery rule as to at least those injuries. The Court explained, though, that “a plaintiff’s cause of action accrues when he or she knows or, in the exercise of reasonable care and diligence should know, that he or she has sustained an injury as a result of the defendant’s wrongful conduct.” Here, plaintiff was aware on the day of the fall that she had sustained an injury; she filed a report with the store on the day she fell and suffered from pain and bruising. Accordingly, she knew that her fall “would support an action for tort against the tortfeasor” and the discovery rule did not apply. The fact that her injuries got worse following the day of her fall did not entitle her to invoke the discovery rule to escape the one-year statute of limitations.