Articles Posted in Claims Against Local Governments

 

Where an ROTC instructor pulled a stool from beneath a student, his actions were not within the scope of his employment and immunity was not removed under the GTLA.

In O’Brian v. Rutherford County Board of Education, No. M2017-00527-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. July 31, 2018), plaintiff was a sophomore in high school and participant in the ROTC program. While at an ROTC competition, the instructor asked his group of students to sit on a log. The instructor’s stool, which he had brought from home, was next to the log. Plaintiff sat on the stool to tie her shoes. The instructor asked her to move several times, to which she responded that she was almost finished. After saying plaintiff’s name for a third time and plaintiff not moving, the instructor pulled the stool out from underneath plaintiff, and she fell, injuring her back.

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Where a trial court granted defendant’s motion for summary judgment in a Tennessee premises liability case without considering plaintiff’s motion to amend her complaint, summary judgment was vacated.

In Shaw v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, Tennessee, No. M2016-02455-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Dec. 14, 2017), plaintiff was a school bus driver employed by defendant. While attending a mandatory training program in 2013, plaintiff had to park her bus then walk across a parking lot owned and maintained by defendant to get to a shuttle. While walking, plaintiff “tripped on a buckled and cracked portion of the pavement,” which was “purportedly the result of flooding that had occurred in Nashville in 2010.”

Plaintiff filed a premises liability complaint, alleging that defendant “breached its duty of care owed to her by failing to repair or warn her of this dangerous condition,” and asserting that “the parking lot existed in a state of disrepair and had been in such a state for a sufficient length of time that [defendant] knew or should have known of its dangerous condition.” Defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, and plaintiff thereafter filed a motion to amend her complaint and add allegations that defendant “had violated various applicable building codes by failing to properly maintain the lot at issue” and thus committed negligence per se. Plaintiff also filed an affidavit from an engineering expert regarding the alleged building code violations.

The statute of limitations for a claim falling under the GTLA is one year. In Thigpen v. Trousdale County Highway Department, No. M2016-02556-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Sept. 19, 2017), a pro se plaintiff filed suit against the highway department and two individuals claiming that they damaged his home while using equipment to resurface a nearby road. The trial court granted defendant’s motion to dismiss based on the statute of limitations, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

Because the highway department was a governmental entity, this suit fell under the GTLA. Immunity was waived because the GTLA provides that governmental entities may be sued “for injuries resulting from the negligent operation by any employee of a motor vehicle or other equipment while in the scope of employment.” (Tenn. Code Ann. 29-20-202(a)). The GTLA also provides, however, that any action must be brought within one-year of the cause of action accruing. Here, the alleged damage occurred three years before the complaint was filed. Dismissal was accordingly affirmed.

The Court of Appeals also affirmed dismissal of the two individuals named in the complaint, noting that “the GTLA prohibits claims for damages against governmental employees when governmental immunity has been waived,” and that “the complaint does not allege that the individuals acted in an intentional matter or outside the scope of their employment.”

Depending on the circumstances, a police officer pulling a handcuffed person by the chain linking the two cuffs may be enough to support a claim for assault and battery in Tennessee, even without evidence of a significant injury.

In Stafford v. Jackson County, Tennessee, No. M2016-01883-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 4, 2017), plaintiff sued a sheriff’s deputy, the sheriff, and the county after being arrested by the deputy. The deputy had pulled plaintiff’s husband over for speeding, and plaintiff and her son arrived on the scene after hearing about it on a police scanner. Plaintiff approached the deputy, and though there was a dispute regarding what was said and how cooperative or uncooperative plaintiff was, the deputy ultimately handcuffed and arrested plaintiff for obstructing a traffic stop. Regarding the handcuffing procedure, plaintiff testified in her deposition that the officer first cuffed her right hand, then her left, “then pulled me up by the chain, by the middle of the cuff, the chain.” Plaintiff testified that when the chain was pulled, it was painful and she screamed. When she arrived at the jail, plaintiff told personnel there that her wrists and shoulders hurt, and after her release she went to the local medical center, where she was x-rayed and given medication for her blood pressure.

Plaintiff brought suit, asserting several theories of liability. The trial court granted summary judgment to defendants on all claims, finding specifically that plaintiff had not established the elements of an intentional infliction of emotional distress claim, and that plaintiff had not shown damages to support her assault and battery claim. Plaintiff appealed the dismissal of the assault and battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress claims. On appeal, summary judgment on the emotional distress claim was affirmed, but the holding on the assault and battery claim was reversed.

In Elliott v. City of Manchester, No. M2015-01798-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. July 24, 2017), the Court of Appeals analyzed an inmate’s ability to recover from a governmental entity when injured while on work detail.

Plaintiff was an inmate at Coffee County jail. While out performing a work assignment, plaintiff “fell from the bed of a pick-up truck and sustained head injuries.” The truck driver was another inmate, and the inmates were being supervised by a city police officer.

Plaintiff brought suit against both the city and county, but he settled with the county, leaving the city as the only defendant. The city filed a motion to dismiss on the grounds that it was immune under the GTLA, and the trial court dismissed the case. This appeal followed.

On appeal, the Court first analyzed the application of the GTLA and the extent of the city’s potential liability in this case. The GTLA was enacted in 1973 and “is premised on the absolute immunity of governmental entities.” (internal citation omitted). Immunity is waived by the GTLA and a suit against a governmental entity is allowed “for injury proximately caused by a negligent act or omission of any employee acting within the scope of his employment.” (quoting Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-20-205). Plaintiff argued that the GTLA waived immunity in this case, allowing his suit to move forward. Defendant city asserted, though, that Tenn. Code Ann. § 41-2-123(d)(2) applied here and “controll[ed] over the GTLA[.]”

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In Ramsey v. Cocke County, Tennessee, No. E2016-02145-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. June 23, 2017), plaintiff sued the county, the police department, and the county emergency communications district for wrongful death after her daughter committed suicide. The trial court granted summary judgment to defendants, but the Court of Appeals reversed, holding that “the decedent’s suicide was foreseeable and that the special duty exception to the public duty doctrine applie[d].”

According to plaintiff, she called 911 around 8:30 p.m. one night because her daughter was exhibiting “unexplained serious mental and behavioral” issues and was indicating that she was going to commit suicide. Plaintiff asserted that she told the 911 operator that her daughter was threatening suicide and asked for police assistance, but that the operator refused to send police because “it was not their policy to respond to domestic family issues.” Plaintiff called again around 9:15 and was denied police assistance a second time, and plaintiff was transferred to an officer who allegedly affirmed that it was “not their policy to send responders in situations like this.” Because the operator had refused to dispatch an officer, plaintiff stated that she drove to the police department, but that the doors were locked and she could not find an officer. When plaintiff returned home, her daughter had committed suicide.

Plaintiff filed suit for wrongful death, and the defendants disputed plaintiff’s version of the facts. Defendants denied that plaintiff requested an officer or that she told them that her daughter was contemplating suicide. Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment on the basis that they “did not owe plaintiff a duty of care pursuant to the public duty doctrine” and that the suicide was “an intervening and independent cause which supersedes any liability and is the proximate cause of the death of the decedent.” The trial court granted the summary judgment, finding that the suicide here was an intervening cause, but the Court of Appeals reversed.

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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 Runions v. Jackson-Madison County General Hospital Dist., No. W2016-00901-COA-R9-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 7, 2017), the Tennessee Court of Appeals analyzed a case in which pre-suit notice for an HCLA claim was mistakenly sent to the wrong defendant/defendants. Under the specific facts of this case, the Court determined that the proper defendant did in fact receive notice and that a motion to amend and substitute the proper defendant was rightly granted.

Plaintiff’s infant daughter had been born and died shortly thereafter at Jackson-Madison County General Hospital, and plaintiff accordingly sent pre-suit notice of an HCLA suit pursuant to Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-26-121. Plaintiff sent her notices to three defendants: (1) Bolivar General Hospital, Inc. (“BGH”), (2) West Tennessee Healthcare, Inc. (“WTH”), and (3) West Tennessee Healthcare Network (“WTHN”). All of these were addressed as d/b/a Jackson-Madison County General Hospital, Inc., and all were sent to the same registered agent and the same address.

One week after the pre-suit notices were sent, Laura Zamata, who was “Director of Risk Management” for the Jackson-Madison County General Hospital District (“the District”) sent plaintiffs’ counsel a letter “acknowledging receipt of a pre-suit notice letter.” The letter stated that “The District is a governmental entity and has elected to be self-insured, therefore, there is no insurance carrier.” It also stated that Ms. Zamata was the designated contact for future correspondence.

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In Turner v. City of Memphis, No. W2015-02510-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Dec. 20, 2016), the Court of Appeals affirmed a verdict for plaintiff following a Tennessee head-on car wreck between plaintiff and a police officer.

In December 2012, plaintiff and a Memphis police officer were traveling in opposite directions along the same road at just after midnight. The road had five lanes, two going in each direction and one turn lane. Plaintiff was driving south in the lane closest to the turn lane, while the officer was driving north in the outer lane. According to plaintiff, the officer “negligently and without warning crossed traffic and struck the vehicle being driven by [plaintiff] head on.” The accident caused plaintiff’s airbag to deploy and both drivers were knocked unconscious. Plaintiff was transported to the hospital by ambulance and was “subjected to a full trauma work-up, was given a neck brace because of whiplash, was given an I.V. for dehydration, and was administered considerable pain medication.” Plaintiff testified that he eventually was treated by a chiropractor and that the accident caused him pain that he had “never experienced before on that scale.” According to plaintiff, his injuries had improved, but they had “decreased his ability to engage in physical activities including cooking, cleaning, and getting his son to and from school, and he still suffered from frequent headaches, anxiety attacks, and unease of rest.”

Plaintiff brought this action against the city of Memphis under the GTLA for the officer’s alleged negligence in causing the accident. Plaintiff sought $300,000 in damages, including $28,421.18 in medical expenses.

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In Nickels v. Metropolitan Govt. of Nashville and Davidson County, No. M2015-01938-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Sept. 28, 2016), the Court of Appeals went through a thorough analysis of Tennessee’s  Governmental Tort Liability Act (GTLA) as it related to a claim regarding the malfunction of a sewer and stormwater system.

Though the facts here were quite detailed, the gist of the matter was that plaintiff owned a dentist office in midtown Nashville, and the land surrounding the office “generally [rose] in every direction.” This area of Nashville has a combined sewage and stormwater system, and there was a catch basin behind the office parking lot where stormwater was intended to be integrated into the sewer line. From this catch basin, the mixed water was fed downstream “into a twelve-inch line,” which then connected to a much larger 108-inch pipe.

In 2005, plaintiff built an addition onto his dental office. Later that year, plaintiff’s office manager called Metro Water Services for the first time to report that plaintiff believed the storm drain was clogged, as there was flooding in the alley behind the office. Plaintiff called Metro again in May 2006 to report that water was coming out of the catch basin, after which Metro did a video inspection of the water line that showed concrete in the 12-inch line. This concrete was not removed. In September 2006, plaintiff’s office flooded from the back door and the shower drains, and the floodwater contained sewage. On June 3, 2007, the office flooded again. Metro inspected the pipe again, and found “four to five inches of concrete and debris in the line.” Metro removed two sections of the pipe but did not compensate plaintiff for repairs to his office. Metro did, however, install a back-trap device on plaintiff’s service line.

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