Strip Club Murderer Loses Appeal

The case of Jernigan v. Hunter, No. M2013-01860-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Sept. 30, 2014) begins in January 2006, when John Jernigan was stabbed and beaten to death by two men, a father and son, inside a Nashville strip club. Father pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in his criminal proceeding, and son pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of aggravated assault.

Thereafter, Jernigan’s parents filed a wrongful death lawsuit against father and son, both of whom defended themselves during a bench trial. The trial court found that Jernigan’s parents had proved by a preponderance of the evidence that father had directly and intentionally contributed to Jernigan’s death by stabbing him multiple times. However, due to conflicting evidence, the trial court ruled that parents did not prove that the son had caused or contributed to Jernigan’s death. Accordingly, the court awarded Jernigan’s parents $250,000 in damages against the father and dismissed the son. The father appealed and represented himself again.

The appellate court’s opinion classified father’s arguments on appeal into three categories: evidentiary issues, legal issues, and issues first raised on appeal.

Evidentiary Issues

Father’s appeal was pretty much devastated at the outset because he did not file a transcript of the evidence (under Tenn. R. App. P. 24(b)) or a statement of the evidence (under Tenn. R. App. P. 24(c)) in the appellate record, resulting in a conclusive presumption on appeal that there was sufficient evidence before the trial court to support its judgment. Tennessee law holds that, to the extent issues on appeal depend on factual determinations, the lack of a transcript or statement of the evidence is essentially fatal to the party having the burden on appeal. Father challenged the sufficiency of evidence, arguing that there was conflicting testimony about who participated in the fight with Jernigan and that Jernigan had been under the influence of alcohol and marijuana at the time of his death. Father also challenged the sufficiency of the complaint, contending that it failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. However, because father failed to file a transcript or statement of the evidence, there was no evidence before the court to review on appeal. The appellate court therefore found father’s evidentiary issues without merit.

Legal Issues

Father sought review of the trial court’s denial of his request to appoint counsel to represent him. The appellate court rejected father’s argument because, unlike indigent criminal litigants, indigent civil litigants have neither the constitutional nor the statutory right to court-appointed counsel.

In father’s second legal issue, he argued that the trial court failed to rule on “numerous pending motions” filed in the trial court. However, the appellate court rejected this argument because father failed to identify which motions he was referring to, and he otherwise failed to establish that any substantive motions were not properly addressed by the trial court.

Father’s third legal issue argued that the trial court should have severed father’s civil trial from son’s civil trial. Rule 42.02 of the Tennessee Rules of Procedures states that a trial judge may exercise its discretion to order separate trials for “convenience or to avoid prejudice,” and the Tennessee Supreme Court has held that the interest of justice will warrant a bifurcation of the issues in only the most exceptional cases and upon a strong showing of necessity. Father’s appellate brief failed to identify any reason why he was prejudiced by the trial court’s denial of his motion to sever. Further, the trial court had found that father and son were both necessary witnesses in each case, and, depending on the proof at trial, fault would likely need to be allocated against each defendant. Based on these considerations, the appellate court found that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying father’s motion to sever. 

Father’s fourth legal issue on appeal challenged the competency of a witness who testified at trial. Father alleged that the witness had past criminal charges against him, mental health issues, and was “unreliable.” But, again, because of father’s failure to file a transcript or statement of the evidence, the court of appeals was unable to fully address the witness’s competency. With no evidence to counter the presumption of correctness afforded to the trial court, the appellate court had no basis to conclude the evidence was insufficient to support the ruling that the witness was competent to testify, and thus father’s argument was rejected.

Issues First Raised on Appeal

Father argued the following three issues for the first time on appeal: whether Jernigan’s parents had standing to bring the wrongful death claim, whether Jernigan’s parents filed the wrongful death lawsuit within the statute of limitations, and whether the lawsuit satisfied the requirements of the Federal Tort Claim Act. The appellate court summarily rejected all three issues, relying on well-established Tennessee law that holds that if an issue is not properly raised in the trial court it cannot be raised for the first time on appeal. Because father did not properly bring these matters to the attention of the trial court, the appellate court that they were without merit.

Note to non-lawyers:  practicing law ain’t rocket science, but there are rules that, if not followed, create all sorts of problems.  I don’t fix my own toilets, and you probably should defend yourself in a wrongful death case.