Articles Posted in Civil Procedure

After obtaining a default judgment on claims for conversion and malicious prosecution, a plaintiff must “prove the extent of her claimed damages,” and defendant should be given “an opportunity to rebut her evidence or present evidence of his own on the question of damages for those claims before entering a final judgment.”

In Husk v. Thompson, No. M2016-01481-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 10, 2017), plaintiff and defendant had lived together before a contentious separation. Plaintiff was charged with domestic assault and ordered not to return to the shared apartment. Plaintiff continued paying her half of the rent for three months even though she was not living there. When defendant failed to pay his portion of the rent due for the apartment two months in a row, plaintiff paid the full amount. Further, there were issues regarding personal property.

Plaintiff filed this suit for conversion, unjust enrichment, and malicious prosecution. Defendant received notice of the suit and was then served at the sheriff’s office, but he did not file an answer. Plaintiff moved for a default judgment, and when defendant did not show up to the hearing, the default judgment was entered. On the day of the default judgment hearing, the trial court entered an order granting plaintiff $15,577.16 in damages.

Defendant appealed both the entry of default judgment and the damages awarded. The Court of Appeals first affirmed the entry of default judgment, noting that defendant “asserted that he failed to file a timely response because he ‘believed no action would be taken in the civil case’ until the criminal cases involving [plaintiff] were resolved.” The Court found that this argument was “equivalent to a claim of ignorance of the law,” and that “ignorance of the law is not excusable neglect or a proper ground for relief” from a default judgment. (internal citation and quotation omitted). In addition, the Court rejected defendant’s assertion that the judgment should be set aside because he did not receive notice of the motion for default. The Court noted that this was really a credibility issues, and that the trial court had decided against defendant. The Court further noted that “the fact that [defendant] received both the complaint and a copy of the default judgment calls into question the veracity of his claim that he did not receive the motion for default judgment.”

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A party’s failure to supplement its discovery responses or deposition testimony can result in a jury verdict for that party being vacated. For businesses, this duty to supplement may include the testimony of its employees.

In Collier v. Roussis, No. E2016-01591-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 7, 2017), a minor filed suit through his parents for birth injuries “allegedly suffered by plaintiff when his mother had an allergic reaction during labor.” The named defendants were the doctor treating the mother and the hospital where plaintiff was born. Much of the relevant testimony surrounded how and how often plaintiff’s mother’s blood pressure was being monitored, with the medical chart showing two blood pressure readings by a fetal monitor and one by defendant doctor. The trial court directed a verdict for defendants on one issue, and the jury returned a verdict that neither the doctor nor “the nurses employed by the Hospital were” negligent. Plaintiff appealed, citing multiple issues for review.

First, on an issue that ended up being dispositive of the appeal, plaintiff argued that “the trial court erred in allowing previously undisclosed testimony from the nurses, testimony which was inconsistent with the nurses’ earlier deposition testimony.” During their depositions, two nurses who worked for the hospital and treated plaintiff’s mother testified that they had no independent recollection beyond what was in the medical record. Mother’s file only indicated that her blood pressure was recorded three times during the relevant period. At trial, however, both of these nurses testified that counsel for the hospital had shown them pictures that plaintiff’s family took in the hospital room, and that those pictures had caused them to remember additional facts. Specifically, they both testified that the mother’s blood pressure was being monitored by a special machine. One stated that because the machine was in use the mother “was not hypotensive, or we would have treated that,” and another stated the nurses “were continuously glancing over at that…monitor to see what her blood pressure was.” Over plaintiff’s objection, the trial court allowed the new testimony, but the Court of Appeals ruled that this was error and the judgment should be vacated.

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In Montpelier v. Moncier, No. E2016-00246-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. June 1, 2017), the Tennessee Court of Appeals affirmed dismissal of an abuse of process claim.

The background of this case was fairly unique, as it involved attorneys suing another attorney due to defendant attorney’s actions in an underlying case. Plaintiff attorneys had removed the underlying case to federal court and filed a notice of removal with the state court. Within 24 hours after the notice of removal was filed, defendant attorney served a Rule 11 motion on plaintiffs in the state court case. The Rule 11 motion, however, was never filed with the court, but only served on plaintiffs.*

Plaintiffs filed this abuse of process claim based on the Rule 11 motion served by defendant. Plaintiffs asserted that defendant was using Rule 11 improperly to attempt to fee-shift and that he committed an “intentional abuse of process” by refusing “to file the Rule 11 motions until he first determines how the underlying ‘offending’ pleading is decided.” Plaintiffs argued that defendant used his Rule 11 motion as an “open-ended threat of obtaining money from his adversaries and their attorneys unless they withdrew facts and claims,” and that he “primarily sought to increase the burden and expense of litigation[.]” Further, plaintiffs argued that the proper place for defendant to have filed this particular Rule 11 motion was federal court, but that defendant could not comply with the proper filing because he was disbarred from the federal court.

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In Higgs v. Green, No. M2016-01369-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. May 11, 2017), the Court of Appeals affirmed a jury verdict for defendant in a car accident case.

Plaintiff and defendant were involved in a two-car accident in Brentwood. “The accident occurred as Defendant was making a left-hand turn across Plaintiff’s lane of traffic to enter a gas station when the front of Plaintiff’s vehicle collided with the rear quadrant of the passenger’s side of Defendant’s vehicle.” Plaintiff alleged in her complaint that the accident was due to defendant’s failure to yield, failure to keep a proper lookout, failure to keep his car under control, and turning without making sure it was safe to do so. Further, plaintiff cited four statutes that she alleged defendant violated, asserting that defendant had thus committed negligence per se.

The jury returned a verdict finding plaintiff 75% at fault and defendant 25% at fault, and judgment was thus entered for defendant. Plaintiff moved for a new trial, which the trial court denied, and this appeal followed. On appeal, plaintiff presented two issues, one dealing with the exclusion of certain testimony from a police officer and one dealing with potential juror misconduct.

During the trial, but while the jury was not present, the investigating officer who plaintiff planned to call as a witness was questioned. The officer testified that “he had no independent recollection of the accident other than what was written in his police report and the police report did not indicate that Defendant had crossed a double-yellow line when he made his left turn to cross Plaintiff’s lane of traffic.” The officer further testified that defendant was not issued a citation after the accident. Despite these admissions, the officer stated that he was familiar with the area and that “there was a double-yellow line” where the accident occurred, that the double-yellow line would indicate “a continuation of a median,” and that it was illegal to turn across a median.

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In J. Alexander’s Holdings, LLC v. Republic Services, Inc., No. M2016-01526-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. May 12, 2017), the Court of Appeals affirmed dismissal based on the ground of forum non conveniens.

Plaintiff restaurant had contracted with defendant for waste removal at some of its locations. The incident from which this case arose happened at a restaurant in Livonia, Michigan, where “in the process of retrieving the dumpster” at plaintiff’s restaurant location a driver for defendant allegedly hit the restaurant and caused damage.  Total damages?  $13,800 (plus attorneys’ fees and costs).

Plaintiff filed its complaint in the Davidson County General Sessions Court in Tennessee for breach of contract and negligence. Defendant moved for dismissal based on improper venue, which the sessions court granted. Plaintiff appealed to the circuit court, where the case was eventually dismissed based on improper venue and forum non conveniens. This appeal followed.

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In Zink v. Rural/Metro of Tennessee, L.P., No. E2016-01581-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. May 2, 2017), the Court of Appeals held that plaintiff’s allegations fell within the HCLA, but that no certificate of good faith was required because the claimed negligence was “subject to the common knowledge exception.”

In his complaint, plaintiff alleged that defendant EMT “’negligently and carelessly’ struck [plaintiff] in the face with his fist.” Plaintiff asserted that he was strapped to a gurney at the time, and that defendant “assaulted and battered him, using excessive force.” Further, plaintiff claimed that defendant’s actions caused him permanent injury and medical expenses. Plaintiff brought this action for negligence against defendant EMT and his employer.

Defendants filed a motion to dismiss, asserting that plaintiff’s claims were subject to the HCLA and that plaintiff did not follow the procedural requirements of the statute. The trial court granted the motion, dismissing plaintiff’s complaint with prejudice due to his failure to file a certificate of good faith pursuant to Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-26-122. The trial court rejected plaintiff’s argument that no certificate of good faith was needed because his allegations fell within the common knowledge exception to the expert testimony requirement. On appeal, however, this decision was reversed.

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In a recent negligence case, the Court of Appeals vacated summary judgment due to the trial court’s failure to explain the basis upon which summary judgment was granted, and it remanded the case with directions for an order that met the standards of Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 56.04 to be entered.

In Koczera v. Steele, No. E2015-02508-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. April 28, 2017), plaintiffs had previously filed an HCLA suit against several defendants, including Dr. O’Connor and Oak Ridge Urology Associates (ORUA). Christi Steele was the office manager at ORUA, and she “was served with Dr. O’Connor’s process and gave the complaint and summons to another doctor, who gave them to Dr. O’Connor.” Dr. O’Connor was eventually dismissed from the HCLA suit on the basis that “Ms. Steele was not authorized to accept service of process on his behalf.”

Plaintiffs subsequently filed this case against Ms. Steele, the doctor to whom Ms. Steele gave Dr. O’Connor’s process, ORUA, Tennessee Urology Associates PLLC, and Tennessee Urology Associates PLLC d/b/a Oak Ridge Urology Associates. In their complaint, plaintiffs alleged that “the negligence and negligent misrepresentation of those parties prevented Dr. O’Connor from being properly served and resulted in his dismissal from the [original] suit.”

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In West v. Epiphany Salon & Day Spa, LLC, No. E2016-01860-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. April 25, 2017), the Court of Appeals affirmed a large remittitur in a negligence case, reducing the jury’s award by over 61%.

Plaintiff had gone to defendant salon for a facial treatment in 2012. According to her testimony, her “face began burning upon application of the treatment” and she “rushed home in pain.” She filed this negligence action, alleging that her face never recovered from the treatment.

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In Haynes v. Wayne County, No. M2016-01252-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. April 19, 2017), the Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment, holding that the county was not liable in a wrongful death action where an inmate committed suicide shortly after his release.

The decedent was 20-years-old and had been arrested for underage consumption, public intoxication, and resisting arrest. On the night of his arrest, he was intoxicated to the point of barely being able to walk and throwing up on himself. He asked two arresting officers if their guns were real and asked the officers to shoot him. This behavior was reported to the booking officer, who asked decedent several standard medical questions. Decedent told the booking officer that “he was suffering from depression and had attempted to commit suicide several times in the past.” Decedent was put in a suicide prevention suit and in an isolated cell on suicide watch, where he slept without incident. There was a non-profit organization called Centerstone that would come evaluate suicidal inmates, but they would not come while an inmate was intoxicated. At 6:00 a.m. there was a shift change and a new officer came on duty. The officer was informed of the statements decedent had made the night before. That morning, decedent was told he was eligible for release, and the officer asked decedent if he remembered making the suicidal threats the night before, to which decedent “replied in a joking manner that he remembered making the statement but was just drunk and did not mean it.” The release process took about an hour, and decedent “seemed fine during that time.”

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In Bradley v. Bishop, No. W2016-01668-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Mar. 30, 2017), the Court of Appeals affirmed a jury verdict for defendants in a health care liability case.

For eight years, plaintiff had been treated for a fibroid in her uterus that caused extensive bleeding. In 2012, another fibroid was discovered, and after an unsuccessful surgery to remove the fibroid, plaintiff decided to undergo a hysterectomy. Defendant doctor recommended a laparoscopic hysterectomy, but warned plaintiff that she might have to convert to an open procedure. During the surgery, defendant did convert to an open procedure. Defendant called for surgical back-up, but no one was available, and defendant determined that she could complete the procedure herself. During the procedure, defendant noticed a “superficial cut” on plaintiff’s colon, but she did not see or notice any signs of a bowel injury. In the days following the hysterectomy, plaintiff’s “condition deteriorated,” and she was eventually diagnosed with a bowel injury which required surgical repair, three weeks of hospitalization, and additional procedures in the following years.

Plaintiff filed this suit, alleging that defendant “negligently caused injury to [plaintiff’s] small bowel.” Throughout the litigation, causation was not contested, as defendant admitted that the bowel was injured during the surgery. Whether defendant’s actions met the applicable standard of care, however, was hotly contested, with several experts testifying for both sides. Plaintiffs’ experts testified that defendant had fallen below the standard of care, that a different type of hysterectomy would have been more appropriate, that defendant had made mistakes during the surgery, and that defendant should have noticed the bowel injury. Defendants’ experts, however, testified that the chosen procedure was appropriate, that defendant acted in accordance with the standard of care at all times, and that bowel injuries were a common complication of hysterectomies and could occur even when the surgery was done appropriately. Ultimately, the jury returned a verdict for defendant, finding that defendant “did not deviate from the recognized standard of care,” which the trial court affirmed as thirteenth juror. On appeal, the Court of Appeals also affirmed.

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