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Articles Posted in Claims Against Local Governments

Where a trial court did not explain the legal basis for its ruling that a deputy sheriff was immune from a defamation suit under the GTLA, the Court of Appeals vacated the judgment.

In Taylor v. Harsh, No. M2019-01129-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 21, 2020), plaintiff filed suit against defendant, who was a deputy sheriff, for slander, defamation, and interference with prospective economic advantage. The complaint specified that defendant was being sued in his individual capacity. According to plaintiff, defendant pulled plaintiff over for a traffic stop “that resulted in no citation or arrest,” and defendant “thereafter informed an official with a youth volunteer firefighter program…that Plaintiff had committed a felony and fled from the police,” which caused plaintiff’s participation in the program to be terminated.

Defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that he was immune under the Governmental Tort Liability Act (GTLA). The trial court granted the motion, writing in its memo that defendant “was entitled to the immunities set forth in Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-20-205(2).” In its oral ruling, the trial court found that defendant was entitled to immunity, but “focuse[d] primarily on the facts of this case, rather than the law.”

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Where plaintiff was injured when he was standing on the water meter box in his yard and the concrete cover unexpectedly moved, and the  governmental water authority had noted that the box needed to be replaced four months before the incident, the Court of Appeals affirmed a finding that the water authority was 100% at fault for plaintiff’s injuries.

In Cox v. Water and Wastewater Treatment Authority of Wilson County, Tennessee, No. M2018-00433-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 31, 2020), plaintiff was scraping ice off his truck and had to stand on the concrete cover on the water meter in his yard. While he was standing on it, the “concrete cover fell into the box beneath it,” causing plaintiff to break a bone in his foot.

Plaintiff filed this GTLA suit alleging that defendant water authority “had actual and/or constructive notice that the water meter box was in an unreasonably dangerous, defective and unsafe condition and that the company failed to alleviate or warn of the danger.” Defendant denied having notice and raised the affirmative defense of comparative fault.

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Where a man being arrested was shot and killed after he went out of his home and raised a gun towards a police officer, the Court of Appeals affirmed dismissal of a GTLA tort suit, finding that the police department was immune from suit and that the suit was barred by the decedent’s comparative fault.

In Acree v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, No. M2019-00056-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Dec. 27, 2019), decedent failed to appear for an aggravated criminal trespass court hearing, which resulted in a felony warrant being issued. Officers retrieved the warrant the next day, and the warrant stated that “subject may exhibit paranoia and feel that officers are following him.” The officer serving the warrant also noted that “Decedent had been arrested three times in the past six months without incident.” Four officers proceeded to decedent’s home, and two went to the front door and two to the back door. One officer knocked and identified himself, and when there was no answer, he saw through a hole in the door that decedent was not moving. The officer knocked again and saw decedent move away from the front of the house, so he called over the radio that decedent was walking towards the back door. Decedent then “abruptly open[ed] the back door and raise[d] a firearm at” one officer. The officer shot once, striking and killing decedent.

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A plaintiff’s claim that the city had a duty to protect her against a dog owned by another citizen fell under the public duty doctrine, and summary judgment for defendant city was thus affirmed.

In Fleming v. City of Memphis, No. W2018-00984-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Mar. 5, 2019), plaintiff filed suit against defendant city after she was attacked and mauled by a dog owned by a private citizen. Plaintiff alleged that the city “had actual prior notice of this dog’s vicious propensities” based on two prior attacks by the same dog. Defendant filed a motion for summary judgment based on the public duty doctrine, which the trial court granted and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

It was undisputed that the GTLA did not provide the City immunity in this case. After the dog bite preceding the attack on plaintiff, an animal control worker “did not believe there were grounds upon which [to seek] a petition to declare the dog dangerous and vicious under City ordinance,” and this decision by the government worker was determined to be operational. The issues raised by plaintiff, then, were “1) whether the GTLA supersedes the public duty doctrine; and 2) if the public duty doctrine survives, whether the trial court erred in finding that it applie[d]” here.

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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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