Articles Posted in Claims Against Local Governments

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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In Peters-Asbury v. Knoxville Area Transit, Inc., No. E2015-01816-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 8, 2016), the Court of Appeals overturned a bench trial negligence verdict.

Plaintiff was a student at the University of Tennessee with limited mobility due to a previous knee injury. For students with disabilities, UT provided transportation through an agreement with Knoxville Area Transit, Inc. (“KAT”), who was the defendant in this case. On the morning of the incident, plaintiff called the KAT operator and asked to be taken to the Office of Disability Services. Disability Services was located in Dunford Hall, which had a main entrance and a side entrance. The side entrance was closest to the Disability Services Office. A bus came to pick up plaintiff, and she repeated to the driver that she wanted to be taken to Disability Services. Accordingly, the driver took her to the side entrance of Dunford Hall. As plaintiff took her first step off the bus, she fell and fractured her right ankle. Plaintiff suffered many complications from the fall, eventually withdrawing from UT for the semester and moving to a single-level home with her family, and having surgery more than a year and a half after the fall.

Plaintiff brought this negligence action against defendant, asserting in her original complaint that the driver “had acted negligently in dropping [plaintiff] off at the side entrance to Dunford Hall, which [she] asserted was ‘an inappropriate and unreasonably dangerous location,’ rather than at the building’s main entrance.” After discovery, during which defendant produced a low-quality video of the incident taken from inside the bus, plaintiff amended her complaint to also allege that the driver negligently caused her to fall “by moving the bus forward as she was exiting the bus onto the pavement.”

During the trial, evidence was presented regarding both negligence theories. On her theory that she was dropped off in an unsafe area, plaintiff “testified that the main entrance was the safer of the two locations for mobility impaired students because the area around it was flat and clear, while the area around the side entrance was inclined and surrounded by landscaping.” Plaintiff alleged that debris could wash down onto the side entrance, but admitted on cross-examination that she did not step on any debris when she fell.

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In Fowler v. City of Memphis, No. W2015-01637-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 11, 2016), the Court of Appeals analyzed a case falling under the GTLA, ultimately holding that while plaintiff appeared to be making a premises liability claim, the case actually fell under a different provision of the Act.

Plaintiff was injured when he fell into an uncovered water meter in a sidewalk near his home. Plaintiff filed suit against various entities, but the one at issue on this appeal was Memphis Light, Gas, and Water. “According to the complaint the uncovered water meter was a dangerous condition of which [defendant] had actual and constructive knowledge.”

Defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that it “had no notice that the water meter box cover had been tampered with or that a dangerous condition existed at the location of [plaintiff’s] fall.” Defendant asserted that the water meter at issue had been taken out of service in 2007, and a cover had been put over it.

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In Holt v. City of Fayetteville, No. M2014-02573-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Mar. 15, 2016), the Court of Appeals affirmed dismissal of plaintiffs’ claims due to the city’s immunity under the public duty doctrine, a key limitation of the Tennessee Governmental Tort Liability Act.

According to plaintiffs, a police officer had arrested a suspect and placed her in a police car, yet failed to property restrain her. The suspect then stole the police car, drove “at a high rate of speed,” and collided with the car carrying plaintiffs, causing one person to die and three minors to be seriously injured. Plaintiffs brought suit against the city based on the negligence of the police officer in failing to properly restrain the suspect as she was taken into custody.

The city moved for dismissal, which the trial court granted, finding that “although the GTLA removed immunity for negligent acts of employees, Plaintiffs’ claims against the City were barred by the public duty doctrine.” The Court of Appeals affirmed this holding.

On appeal, the Court first looked to the GTLA. As a municipality, the city was entitled to immunity under the GTLA unless the situation fit into one of the enumerated exceptions in the statute. Plaintiffs argued that immunity was removed under Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-20-202, which “removes sovereign immunity ‘for injuries resulting from the negligent operation by any employee of a motor vehicle…while in the scope of employment.’” The Court rejected this argument, noting that plaintiffs in this case “only allege that Police Officer negligently restrained [suspect] after her arrest.” The Court concluded that they were “unable to create a claim of negligent operation of a motor vehicle solely from an allegation that Police Officer negligently restrained [suspect].”

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A recent appeal in a claim filed under the Health Care Liability Act (HCLA) turned on when the statute of limitations began to run and whether a doctor was an employee under the Governmental Tort Liability Act (GTLA).

In Rogers v. Blount Memorial Hospital, Inc., No. E2015-00136-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 29, 2016), plaintiff arrived at the Blount Memorial Hospital’s (“Hospital”) emergency room on September 8, 2012. He was treated by Dr. Bhatti (“Doctor”), who diagnosed him with and began treating him for Guillain-Barre Syndrome (“GBS”). According to plaintiff, he later found out he never had GBS, but instead had a spinal abscess, and the delay in diagnosis and treatment of the abscess “resulted in permanent and irreplaceable spinal cord damage.”

Plaintiff sent pre-suit notice of this suit to the hospital on August 20, 2013, and to the doctor on October 7, 2013. The complaint was then filed on December 13, 2013. Both defendants filed motions for summary judgment, both of which were granted by the trial court for different reasons.

For the doctor, the trial court granted summary judgment based on the statute of limitations, finding that plaintiff “was aware of facts sufficient to place a reasonable person on inquiry notice that he had suffered an injury as a result of Dr. Bhatti’s alleged misdiagnosis” on September 13, 2012, or at least by October 5, 2012. According to the trial court, plaintiff’s pre-suit notice sent on October 7, 2013, was thus sent outside the statute of limitations. Plaintiff argued, though, that “he had no reason to suspect that the initial diagnosis of GBS was incorrect until he was informed by another medical practitioner in mid-October 2012 that he never had GBS.” Plaintiff asserted that although he had continuing symptoms and was told in the hospital that he would be treated for a spinal abscess, he thought the symptoms and abscess were consequences of the GBS and was never told otherwise.

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In Jones v. Bradley County, No. E2015-00204-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 15, 2016), plaintiff sued Bradley County after she collided with a truck responding to a fire at a red-light intersection. Plaintiff had the green light at the intersection. Defendant, a fire rescue employee, was driving a Ford F-250 truck that was equipped with a siren and emergency lights. Defendant proceeded to turn left against a red-light, at which time plaintiff’s car collided with defendant’s truck, causing plaintiff significant injuries.

Bradley County relied on Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-8-108, which “provides privileges to emergency vehicle drivers under certain circumstances.” This statute allows emergency vehicle drivers to “proceed past a red or stop signal[,]” but still requires the driver “to drive with due regard for the safety of all persons[.]” While analyzing this case, though, the Court pointed out that that “[t]he obligation to exercise due care is, thus, not excused by the fact that the [emergency] driver is responding to an emergency call.” (citation omitted).

Bradley County further asserted that the sole cause of this accident was plaintiff’s failure to comply with Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-8-132, which provides that “upon the immediate approach of an authorized emergency vehicle making use of audible and visual signals…the driver of every other vehicle shall yield the right-of-way.” The Court pointed out that, when previously applying this statute, the Court has “noted the requirement of due care when entering an intersection even under authority of a green light” and “observed that if plaintiff should have heard the siren or should have seen the blue lights flashing, she…cannot evade her duty to yield to an emergency vehicle by saying that she did not hear and did not see because she did not look.” (citation and internal quotations omitted). In response to this argument, plaintiff pointed to the County Rescue Service operations manual, claiming that defendant violated the portions of the manual that stated that emergency drivers should “slow to a safe speed at which a stop could be made, and insure that all traffic has yielded” and “change the siren mode” when approaching an intersection. Plaintiff further argued that the evidence showed that defendant did not drive with due care through the intersection.

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In Parsons v. Wilson County, No. M2014-00521-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Sept. 3, 2015), plaintiff fell from the top bunk bed he was assigned while he was an inmate at Wilson County jail, and he sued the county under the Governmental Tort Liability Act (GTLA) for negligence in failing to assign him to a bottom bunk. According to plaintiff, he informed employees at the jail of his need for a bottom bunk during the intake procedure, citing “existing shoulder and neck injuries.” When he was assigned to a cell, though, he was assigned a top bunk. While getting out of the bunk after sleeping in it, he fell and injured his shoulder.

At trial, the county employee who oversaw management of the jail testified that “a procedure was in place to determine which inmates received a bottom bunk.” The procedure included forms completed during intake, which were then sent to a medical unit where nurses could “review the forms, meet with inmates, determine whether an inmate is able to be placed in the general population in that jail, and make the decision about whether or not the inmate’s medical needs necessitate that the inmate be assigned a bottom bunk.” Based on the testimony of this employee, plaintiff, and a physician, the trial court ruled in the County’s favor. The trial court ruled that the county was performing a discretionary function under the GTLA and thus retained immunity; that the county “had no duty in this case to provide Plaintiff with a bottom bunk;” that there was no breach of duty to plaintiff; that it was not foreseeable that plaintiff would jump from his bed; and that “Plaintiff was guilty of more than fifty percent (50%) of the fault.” While the Court of Appeals affirmed the ruling in the County’s favor regarding duty, it also reversed two of the trial court’s specific rulings.

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A recent Court of Appeals case is a good reminder to pay close attention when drafting your complaint in a Governmental Tort Liability Act (GTLA) case. In Parrott v. Lawrence Co. Animal Welfare League, Inc., No. M2014-01241-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. June 25, 2015), plaintiff filed suit against two defendants regarding the allegedly negligent removal of her dogs from her property. After the dogs were removed, the County had some involvement and the dogs were housed at a Lawrence County jail, and one of the defendants therefore filed a third-party complaint against Lawrence County. Plaintiff subsequently amended her complaint to assert claims against the county as well.

The trial court granted the county’s motion to dismiss plaintiff’s claims, finding that the facts set out in her complaint were insufficient to state a claim under the GTLA, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. As to her negligence claim against the city, the complaint contained the following language:

As a direct and proximate result of the negligent, reckless and intentional acts or omissions of the Defendants, the Plaintiff has sustained damages and losses.