Tennessee Effectively Reduces Statute of Limitations in Claims Filed Against the State

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.

The City filed a motion to dismiss plaintiff’s suit based on the statute of limitations. The City argued that the 90-day window to add comparative tortfeasors was only triggered when an original complaint was filed within the statute of limitations, and that here plaintiff did not file his complaint within the initial one-year statute of limitations. Plaintiff responded by asserting that the written notice of claim counted as an original complaint to trigger the 90-day window; further, plaintiff argued that the Claims Commission Act tolling provision would apply to toll the statute of limitations on his claim against the City. The trial court sided with defendants, finding that the written notice of claim was not a “complaint” and that the 90-day window to add comparative tortfeasors was thus not triggered. The Court of Appeals reversed, finding that the “written notice of the claim is ‘a condition precedent to recovery,’ serves to toll the statute of limitations and ‘provides all the pertinent information that a complaint would.’” The Court of Appeals held that it was “compelled to look past form to substance” and deemed the notice of claim a complaint for purposes of the 90-day window under §20-1-119. Defendant appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court.

Upon taking up the appeal, the Supreme Court identified two issues in this case: (1) whether the written notice of claim filed in the Division of Claims would serve as an “original complaint” under § 20-1-119 and thus entitle a plaintiff to utilize the 90-day window to add comparative tortfeasors provided thereunder, and (2) whether the tolling provision in the Claims Commission Act would apply to extend the statute of limitations for a GTLA claim.

The Court first addressed whether the written notice of claim was an “original complaint” under § 20-1-119. This question was of vital importance because this code section provides plaintiffs a 90-day window within which to add non-parties named by a defendant as comparative tortfeasors, even if the statute of limitations has otherwise run, but a plaintiff can only take advantage of this statute if the defendant naming the non-party was named as a defendant “in an original complaint initiating a suit filed within the applicable statute of limitations.” In analyzing this issue, the Court pointed out that the written notice and the complaint in the Claims Commission serve different purposes, and that if the claim is not settled during the settlement period the written notice “alone will not suffice” to adjudicate the claim. Noting that this statute “should not be construed narrowly” but should also be “interpreted in a matter that comports with the natural and ordinary meaning of the words used in the statute,” the Supreme Court rejected the argument that a written notice filed with the Division of Claims could act as an original complaint under § 20-1-119. Accordingly, since plaintiff here filed his complaint more than a year after the accident, he was not entitled to use the 90-day window provided by this statute to bring suit against the City.

Next, the Court addressed plaintiff’s argument that his filing with the Division of Claims tolled his claim against the City. Tenn. Code Ann. § 9-8-402(b) states: “The filing of the notice by the claimant tolls all statutes of limitations as to other persons potentially liable to the claimant due to the occurrence from which the claim before the commission arises.” While this tolling language is written broadly, plaintiff’s claim against the City arose under the GTLA, and the Court pointed out that the one-year statute of limitations for GTLA claims is to be strictly construed. The Court held that, in order for the tolling provision found in the Claims Commission Act to apply to GTLA claims, there must be evidence that the legislature specifically intended the GTLA to fall within the Act. Finding “no language in the Claims Commission Act in which legislative intent to toll the statute of limitations in GTLA cases is expressly declared or necessarily implied,” the Court held that “Section 9-8-402(b) does not apply to toll GTLA claims against governmental entities such as the City of Clarksville.”

Because the tolling provision did not apply and the written notice did not serve to trigger the 90-day window to add comparative tortfeasors, the Court ordered the case remanded for dismissal.

In a way, this case seems like the perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances leaving the plaintiff unable to pursue his claim against the City. His initial 90-day settlement period with the Claims Commission didn’t end until after the one-year mark from his accident had passed, and thus his complaint was not filed until more than one year after his accident. Further, the tolling provision in the Claims Commission act was useless to him since the comparative tortfeasor eventually named was a governmental entity, forcing his claim to fall under the GTLA. It is easy to imagine, however, how a similar scenario could arise for many plaintiffs. The Claims Commission Act only requires a plaintiff to file written notice of the claim within the original statute of limitations, so the actual complaint is often filed after the initial limitations period has passed. And with the State as the original defendant, it would not be unlikely for a local government agency or municipality to eventually be named in a comparative fault defense, thus falling into the same traps displayed in the Moreno case. Based on the reasoning here, it seems that the only way to follow the process of the Claims Commission and still preserve one’s right of action against a governmental entity that might later be named as a tortfeasor by the State is to be certain that your complaint, not just your written notice of claim, is filed within the statute of limitations. This puts an extra burden on plaintiffs and seems to allow form to trump substance, but pursuant to the reasoning from the Supreme Court, it appears to be the only way to guarantee that all of a plaintiff’s rights are preserved.

From a practical standpoint, the statute of limitations for giving notice of claim against the State of Tennessee has just been shortened by at 91 days.  Why 91 days?  A plaintiff cannot file suit against the State of Tennessee until waiting 90 days after the notice of claim has been filed.  To protect against the risk that the State might blame another person or entity, a complaint must be filed within the one-year statute of limitations. Thus,  a plaintiff is put in the position of giving notice against the State at least 91 days before the statute of limitations expires so that he or she is to prepared to and has the right to file suit against the State within the one year period.  The failure to do so leaves the State with the option of blaming the empty chair, a chair that can be filled only if an exception to the normal statute of limitations rule applies.

Truly a trap for the unwary.