New TCA Sec. 20-1-119 Decision

Justice Holder has released on new comparative fault opinion on behalf of the Tennessee Supreme Court.

Austin had a one-car accident and sued Fayette County for negligently maintaining the roadway. Fayette County said this in its answer:

"the traffic sign in question was not placed there by the Defendant, Fayette County, Tennessee; that it is in the right of way of the State of Tennessee; that it is under the control of the State of Tennessee; that Fayette County, Tennessee has no control over said stop sign, its placement, maintenance, etc[.] and that it cannot be held liable for the stop sign regardless of its condition."

Fayette County also said it was not“engaged in maintenance of the roadway at or near the intersection of Mt. Pleasant Road and Highway 57 including but not limited to the maintenance of lighting, barricades and other traffic devices as they were under the control of the State of Tennessee.”

The Austins then brought a claim against the State.  The State said the statute of limitations had expired, and the Austins claimed the benefit of 20-1-119.

The trial court rejected the Austin’s argument, saying Fayette County had not alleged the fault of the State and therefore Sec. 20-1-119 was not applicable.  The Court of Appeals affirmed.

The TSC reversed, saying  "we conclude that Tennessee Code Annotated section 20-1-119 applies whenever a defendant’s answer gives a plaintiff notice of the identity of a potential nonparty tortfeasor and alleges facts that reasonably support a conclusion that the nonparty caused or contributed to the plaintiff’s injury."  The Court explained that "A defendant is not required to allege the fault of the nonparty explicitly or use the words “comparative fault.” Consistent with the liberal pleading standards of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure, the determination of whether comparative fault is an issue cannot turn on the presence or absence of such precise language."

This paragraph is a real winner:

"The State also argues that comparative fault is not at issue in this case because Fayette County’s factual allegations constitute a general defense that negates an essential element of the Austins’ claim, rather than an affirmative allegation of the fault of a nonparty. Stated differently,  the general defense does not allege comparative fault but simply denies all fault. Our construction of Tennessee Code Annotated section 20-1-119, however, does not support this distinction. Tennessee Code Annotated section 20-1-119 requires us to determine if the answer of Fayette County alleges that a person not a party to the suit “caused or contributed to” the injury or damage for which the plaintiff seeks recovery. To give effect to each word of the statute, we must construe “caused” and “contributed to” such that each has a distinct meaning. See Culbreath v. First Tenn. Bank Nat’l Ass’n, 44 S.W.3d 518, 524 (Tenn. 2001) (holding that when interpreting a statute we are bound to give effect to each word and avoid interpretations that render certain words or phrases superfluous). In this context, the most ordinary use of the word “caused” implies that a nonparty was entirely responsible for the plaintiff’s injuries, while “contributed to” suggests that the nonparty was merely one of multiple entities responsible for the plaintiff’s injuries. Under this reading of the statute, it is irrelevant whether a defendant seeks to shift all or part of the fault to a nonparty. Tennessee Code Annotated section 20-1-119 applies in either event. Thus construed, Fayette County’s answer may be fairly read to allege that the State caused the injuries and damages to the Austins."

The Court’s opinion represents a practical construction of a remedial statute which was drafted to address the problem created by non-party fault allocation in a state with a one-year statute of limitations.  Tom Pebbles of Nashville wrote the original draft of this statute, and I participated in the creation of the final product that became law fourteen years ago.  The Court’s interpretation of the statute reflects a goal that at least I had fourteen years ago, and that was to permit a plaintiff a reasonable opportunity to add any non-party to a lawsuit once the defendant put the plaintiff on notice in the answer that the non-party’s conduct was at issue.

The case is Austin v. State of Tennessee,  No. M2005-01300-SC-R11-CV (May 1, 2007).  Read it here.