The Tennessee Court of Appeals has ruled plaintiffs can pursue claims based on recklessness and gross negligence under the GTLA.
In Lawson v. Hawkins County, TN, No. E2020-01529-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. July 14, 2021), plaintiffs filed suit based on the death of decedent in a fatal one-car accident. According to the complaint, decedent was killed when he was “rounding a switchback curve on the mountain when, at 1:45 a.m., he drove into a chasm where Highway 70 had been.” Plaintiffs asserted that another motorist had called 911 at 12:58 a.m. to report that trees were down in a mudslide and that “if someone’s going up the mountain…they’re going to go off the road.” The 911 dispatcher sent the call to Officer Godsey, who arrived at the scene at 1:13 a.m., 30 minutes before the accident. He found a significant mudslide, including a power pole sliding down the mountain. At that time, Officer Godsey and a 911 operator “casually discussed the situation…[and] no action was taken then to shut down the highway or undertake any other preventative measures.” Multiple other calls were made between 911, various government agencies, and the electric company, although the director of the Emergency Management Agency did not arrive on the scene until 3:07 a.m. At 1:46 a.m., Officer Godsey called 911 to report that a vehicle had “hit a rock embankment and flipped over multiple times down the mountain,” and only after this “did any official consider closing the highway.” Notably, a motorist traveling behind decedent was injured when he also drove into the chasm.
In their complaint, plaintiffs asserted that decedent’s death was caused by “Defendants’ gross negligence, recklessness, and failure to take immediate and direct action in response to the substantial risk of catastrophic injury and/or death due to the collapse of Highway 70 on Clinch Mountain.” Defendants all filed motions for judgment on the pleadings, which the trial court granted, ruling that “reckless conduct just cannot move forward under the GTLA,” and that the claims for ordinary negligence were barred by the public duty doctrine. On appeal, dismissal was reversed.