Where plaintiff originally filed a health care liability suit under the GTLA against multiple defendants, but before any responsive pleading was filed plaintiff filed an amended complaint naming only the physician as a defendant, a subsequent notice and order of voluntary dismissal entered as to the defendants not named in the amended complaint were “of no legal effect.” The original defendants other than the physician were removed from the action through the filing of the amended complaint.
In Ingram v. Gallagher, — S.W.3d —, No. E2020-01222-SC-R11-CV (Tenn. May 17, 2023), plaintiff filed an HCLA suit against multiple defendants, including the physician and the hospital at which the physician worked. Because the hospital was a governmental entity, the GTLA applied to this case. After filing his original complaint but before any responsive pleading had been filed, plaintiff filed an amended complaint naming only the physician as a defendant. Five minutes after the amended complaint was filed, plaintiff filed a notice of voluntary dismissal as to the hospital and other defendants, and an order of voluntary dismissal was entered the following day.
When defendant physician filed his answer to the amended complaint, he raised as a defense that the complaint should be dismissed under the GTLA, as Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-20-310(b) required that since the physician was an employee of a governmental entity, the governmental entity must also be a party to the action. Subsequently, plaintiff “filed a motion to amend his complaint in an effort to reinstate [the hospital] as a defendant.” Plaintiff also “filed a motion to alter or amend the order dismissing [the hospital] as a defendant on the grounds that ‘[the hospital] was inadvertently dismissed in light of the affirmative defense assertation by a co-defendant…that [the hospital] is a necessary party to this action.’” The trial court denied the motion to alter or amend the dismissal order, but it eventually allowed plaintiff to amend his complaint after a second motion to amend was filed.
Defendant hospital filed a motion to dismiss the amended complaint, arguing that plaintiff was required to provide new pre-suit notice prior to filing the amended complaint and file a new certificate of good faith, which plaintiff failed to do. The trial court granted dismissal to the hospital, and defendant physician then filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the hospital was a necessary party under Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-20-310(b). The trial court agreed and granted summary judgment to defendant physician.
On appeal, the Court of Appeals ruled that the order of dismissal as to the hospital was not a final order, and that the trial court should have granted plaintiff’s order to revise the dismissal order. The Court of Appeals thus vacated the orders granting dismissal to the hospital and summary judgment to the physician. In this opinion, the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals.
The Tennessee Supreme Court focused its opinion on a different issue—the effect of the amended complaint filed by plaintiff before any responsive pleadings were filed. Plaintiff asserted that “the amended complaint did not dismiss [the hospital] from the lawsuit,” but only “from the pleading,” but the Supreme Court disagreed. The Supreme Court stated that “an amended complaint may also serve to remove a party from a lawsuit” and reasoned:
It has long been the rule in Tennessee that an “original complaint is superseded, and its effect as a pleading destroyed, by filing an amended complaint complete in itself,  which does not refer to or adopt the original as a part of it.” In this case, [plaintiff’s] original complaint alleged wrongdoing on the part of Dr. Gallagher, Erlanger, Dr. Worthington, and the Chattanooga Neurosurgery and Spine Group, and it named each of them as defendants. The amended complaint, however, only made allegations against Dr. Gallagher and named only Dr. Gallagher as a defendant. The amended complaint was complete in itself and did not refer to or adopt the original as a part of it. Thus, the amended complaint superseded and destroyed the effectiveness of the original complaint. This means that after the amended complaint was filed, only Dr. Gallagher remained a defendant in the action. Erlanger, Dr. Worthington, and the Chattanooga Neurosurgery and Spine Group had been removed from the action by virtue of the filing of the amended complaint, and no order was required to effectuate their removal. The removal of Erlanger as a defendant at this point in the proceedings becomes determinative of our decision in this case. Because Erlanger was removed from the lawsuit the moment [plaintiff] filed his amended complaint, Erlanger was no longer a defendant when [plaintiff] filed his notice of voluntary dismissal nor when the trial court entered its order of voluntary dismissal. As such, both the notice and order of voluntary dismissal were of no legal effect.
(internal citations omitted).
Because the notice and order of voluntary dismissal were of no legal effect, “there was no valid order of voluntary dismissal to alter or amend.” The trial court was thus correct to deny the motion to alter or amend (although the trial court did so for different reasons). The Court of Appeals ruling was reversed, and the Supreme Court remanded the case for consideration of issues that had previously been deemed moot, including whether the savings statute applied, whether the proposed amendment related back, whether compliance with the GTLA was required, and interpretation of certain GTLA sections.
Because the Supreme Court opinion focused on the procedural effect of the filing of the amended complaint, it did not address the GTLA issues raised by this case. The Court of Appeals decision on remand should clarify the GTLA and HCLA issues remaining in this case.
This opinion was released one year after oral arguments were held.
Note: Chapter 43, Section 1 of Day on Torts: Leading Cases in Tennessee Tort Law has been updated to include this decision.
Day on Torts: Leading Cases in Tennessee Tort Law contains summaries of leading cases on over 500 topics and citations to more than 2500 additional cases. The 550,000+ word book (and three others, Tennessee Law of Civil Trial, Tennessee Wrongful Death Law, Compendium of Tennessee Tort Reform Cases) is available by subscription at www.birddoglaw.com and is continually updated as new decisions and statutes impact Tennessee law. Click on the link to see the book’s Table of Contents.
BirdDog Law also provides Tennessee lawyers with free access to user-friendly versions of the Tennessee rules of evidence and procedure and lots of other free resources, including a database for each of Tennessee’s 95 counties that will help find out information about court clerks, judges, filing fees, local rules, local forms, the presence (or absence) of electronic filing, case filings, and tort trial statistics.