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Articles Posted in Civil Procedure

Although a fee-splitting provision in an arbitration agreement was unconscionable based on the plaintiff’s financial situation, the Court of Appeals ruled that the fee-splitting provision was severable and that defendant’s motion to compel arbitration should have been granted.

In Stokes v. Allenbrooke Nursing and Rehabilitation Center LLC, No. W2019-01983-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Sept. 15, 2020), plaintiff filed an HCLA complaint against defendant nursing home alleging that he had contracted sepsis due to the negligence of one of defendant’s nurses, and that he had suffered severe permanent injuries. Defendant filed a motion to compel arbitration, attaching a three-page arbitration agreement that plaintiff had signed on two occasions. The agreement contained a provision stating that the parties would split the arbitration expenses equally. Plaintiff opposed the motion on a “cost-based unconscionability defense,” arguing that plaintiff would never be able to afford paying half of the arbitration costs. Defendant responded that this argument was moot, as it had offered to cover the entire cost of the arbitration. After a hearing, the trial court refused to compel arbitration, finding that the agreement was unconscionable. This appeal followed.

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Where a plaintiff named the wrong defendant in a premises liability suit, but claimed that the proper defendant had notice of the lawsuit due to a correspondence she had sent on its website stating that she had been in contact with her legal team, the proper defendant did not have notice of the lawsuit and the amended complaint naming the proper defendant did not relate back to the filing of the original suit.

In Hensley v. Stokely Hospitality Properties, Inc., No. E2019-02146-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Sept. 9, 2020), plaintiff slipped and fell in the Edgewater Hotel parking lot. She filed suit on June 18, 2019, naming Noble House Hotels as the defendant. When she later learned that Nobel House Hotels did not own the hotel at which she fell, she filed an amended complaint on August 5, 2019 naming defendant, who was the owner of the hotel at issue.

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When a plaintiff takes a voluntary nonsuit in a case asserting vicarious liability against an employer for its employee’s negligence, that plaintiff can re-file pursuant to the savings statute, even if the employee was voluntarily dismissed from the first case.

In Helyukh v. Buddy Head Livestock & Trucking, Inc., No. M2019-02301-COA-R9-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 28, 2020), plaintiff was a long-distance truck driver who was injured when he collided with a tractor-trailer that was overturned on the interstate and had been driven by Michael Heller, an employee of defendant. Plaintiff initially sued both Heller and defendant within the one-year statute of limitations, making direct negligence claims against Heller and claims of vicarious liability against defendant. Plaintiff eventually voluntarily dismissed Heller from the case, and the trial court then granted summary judgment to defendant. On appeal, however, summary judgment was reversed, and shortly after remand, plaintiff nonsuited his claim against defendant.

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Where plaintiff failed to file a transcript or a Rule 24 statement of the evidence with the appellate court, the “facts found by the trial court [were] conclusive on appeal” and the ruling for defendant school system was affirming in this GTLA case.

In Johnson v. Millington Municipal Schools, No. W2019-01547-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 27, 2020), plaintiffs filed a GTLA case against defendant school district alleging that defendant “breached its duty to protect [plaintiff student], who was injured in a fight on school grounds.” The fight at issue took place after school in the car pick-up line. At trial, there was conflicting evidence regarding whether plaintiff student got into her sister’s car before the fight began, whether a male student was involved in the fight, whether plaintiff’s mother had previously warned a school counselor that her daughter had been bullied by the other girls involved in the fight, and who instigated the fight. Additionally, there was testimony from several school employees regarding how close they were to where the fight began, as well as what occurred once the fight was broken up.

In its final order, the trial court found that plaintiff student had already gotten into her sister’s car but then exited it and “physically confronted” two girls who had said expletives to her. The court also found that there were teachers present in the area watching the students, that there was a sheriff’s deputy in the area, and that plaintiff’s mother had not given the school prior warning about issues between the girls. Based on these findings, the trial court ruled that plaintiffs “failed to meet their burden to show that [defendant] was negligent.”

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Where plaintiffs tried to certify a class in a food poisoning case that included all persons who ate at defendant restaurant during a certain time period that became sick due to either ingesting contaminated well water and/or coming into contact with sick employees, as well as these customers “spouses parents children or guardians” who also became infected, the Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of class certification based on the failure to prove commonality, typicality, and adequacy of representation.

In Rogers v. Adventure House LLC, No. E2019-01422-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 24, 2020), plaintiffs became sick after eating at defendant restaurant. Plaintiffs then brought this suit, which “arose form approximately 102 events of food poisoning or illness purportedly related to numerous patrons who dined at or visited [defendant restaurant].” The restaurant, the restaurant owners, and the owner of the property on which the restaurant and well were located were named as defendants. Plaintiffs alleged that patrons became sick after consuming contaminated well water and/or interacting with infected restaurant employees. Plaintiffs also alleged that family members of people who visited the restaurant were infected.

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Tennessee’s Governor has extended authority for remote notarization and remote witnessing of documents, subject to compliance with certain procedures, through Sept. 30. The order also encourages users of these tools to make preparations to implement best practices for a safe return to in-person transactions beginning Oct. 1.

Recall too that under the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure declarations may be used in lieu of affidavits.

The Texas Supreme Court has announced a rule change to permit courts to authorize electronic service of a summons and complaint when traditional efforts to serve have been unsuccessful. Before approving electronic service, a court must consider if evidence shows the defendant uses a social media profile frequently enough that it would be “reasonably effective” to give them notice of the suit.

The comment to the new rule says as follows:

Amended Rule 106(b)(2) clarifies that a court may, in proper circumstances, permit service of citation electronically by social media, email, or other technology. In determining whether to permit electronic service of process, a court should consider whether the technology actually belongs to the defendant and whether the defendant regularly uses or recently used the technology. Other clarifying and stylistic changes have been made.

Where plaintiff did not serve defendants until 89 days after summonses were issued, but defendants failed to present evidence that the delay was intentional, the Court of Appeals reversed dismissal of the case.

In Eskridge v. NHC Healthcare Farragut, LLC, No. E2019-01671-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 6, 2020), plaintiff filed an HCLA claim against defendants on January 31, 2018. Summonses were issued the following day, and plaintiff’s attorney opted to serve the summonses by private process rather than through the sheriff’s department. On May 1, 2018, eighty-nine days after the summonses were issued, plaintiff’s attorney personally served them on defendants through their registered agent. Defendants filed an answer in June 2018, which included the affirmative defense that they had not been properly served. Plaintiff did not file the returns of summonses with the trial court until January 4, 2019.

Plaintiff filed a “Motion to Dismiss or Strike Insufficiency of Service of Process or Insufficiency of Process Defense,” arguing that service was proper because it was completed within 90 days, or that in the alternative, defendants had waived the service of process argument. Defendants filed a motion to dismiss based on the assertion that service was “not ‘contemporaneously with’ or ‘soon after’ the summonses were issued,” and that “nothing but the intentional decision not to serve the summonses and Complaint explains the delay in service of the Complaint.”

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When determining the amount of attorneys’ fees to award in a post-settlement attorney fee dispute, the trial court should have considered the relevant facts and factors contained in Tennessee Rules of Professional Conduct 1.5(a).

In Cordova v. Nashville Ready Mix, Inc., No. M2018-02002-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. May 19, 2020), the issues at play were “post-settlement disputes concerning an attorney’s fee lien filed by the plaintiffs’ first attorney, a subrogation lien filed by the employer’s workers’ compensation carrier, and the assessment of post-settlement discretionary costs against the carrier.” In the underlying case, Sergio Lopez had died from injuries he sustained at work. The injuries were caused by a third party (defendant), and Mr. Lopez’s employer’s workers’ compensation insurance carrier had been paying benefits to his wife and children. The wife filed a wrongful death claim against defendant company and its employee, alleging that the employee caused her husband’s death and that the company was vicariously liable.

In the wrongful death action, plaintiffs were initially represented by attorney Gary Hodges, whose fee agreement “entitled him to 33% of the gross recovery obtained through arbitration, settlement conference or trial.” The agreement also provided that if Mr. Hodges was discharged and plaintiff recovered after the discharge, Mr. Hodges would be entitled to “a reasonable attorney’s fee and reimbursement for all costs advanced.” Notably, the agreement did not differentiate between “discharge for good cause and discharge without cause.” After he was hired by the plaintiffs, “Mr. Hodges entered a separate fee-sharing agreement with another solo practitioner, Robert L. Martin.” Plaintiffs never had an agreement with Mr. Martin and were not told about the agreement between Mr. Hodges and Mr. Martin.

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