Articles Posted in Claims Against Local Governments

In a unanimous decision, the Tennessee Supreme Court has held that the Governmental Tort Liability Act (GTLA) “removes immunity only for ordinary negligence,” not for gross negligence or recklessness.

In Lawson v. Hawkins County, Tennessee, No. E2020-01529-SC-R11-CV (Tenn. Feb. 16, 2023), plaintiffs were the surviving spouse and child of a driver whose car flipped down a mountain after a portion of highway was washed out by a mudslide. The local 911 dispatch was alerted to the mudslide issue at 12:58 a.m., and a deputy arrived at the scene around 1:13 a.m. During subsequent calls to various government agencies, there was no discussion of closing the road. At 1:46 a.m., the deputy called 911 again and reported that decedent’s car had flipped down the mountain. The driver was trapped in his car for eleven hours and died before he could be reached. Shortly after decedent’s accident, another car also fell down the mountain, and only then did the deputy call for assistance to “block the road off.”

Plaintiffs filed this wrongful death suit, asserting that the “grossly negligent and reckless conduct” by defendant governmental entities caused decedent’s death. Defendants moved for judgment on the pleadings, arguing that the GTLA “provided immunity from suit for claims based on recklessness,” and the trial court agreed. The trial court ruled that the GTLA “gave defendants immunity from claims alleging recklessness and that the public-duty doctrine independently barred any claims based on negligence.” The Court of Appeals reversed dismissal. In its opinion, the Court of Appeals ruled that plaintiffs could pursue claims based on gross negligence and/or recklessness under the GTLA. The Supreme Court, however, disagreed with the Court of Appeals and reversed this ruling.

Where plaintiff’s claims against defendant county were based on intentional torts, a one-year statute of limitations applied.

In Anderson v. Lauderdale County, Tennessee, No. W2022-00332-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 21, 2023), plaintiff was pulled over by a sheriff’s deputy employed by defendant county. According to plaintiff, the deputy pointed a gun at plaintiff, chased him and called for backup when plaintiff tried to drive away, eventually tased plaintiff, and made false statements about plaintiff, causing him to be wrongfully charged with multiple crimes. Plaintiff further asserted that “a grand jury returned an indictment against [the deputy].”

Plaintiff filed this complaint against the deputy and defendant county more than one year after the incident, asserting that the county was liable for the deputy’s actions under Tenn. Code Ann. § 8-8-302 and -303. Plaintiff’s initial complaint listed several intentional torts, but his amended complaint removed the referral to any specific torts and instead alleged liability more generally. After plaintiff voluntarily dismissed the deputy, defendant county filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to the statute of limitations, which the trial court granted upon determining that a one-year statute of limitations applied. Dismissal was affirmed on appeal.

While a claim for intentional interference with business relationships does not “arise out of a claim for interference with contract rights” and is thus not expressly listed in the GTLA as a cause of action for which a governmental entity retains immunity, because it is an intentional tort, a plaintiff seeking to assert an intentional interference with business relationships claim against a governmental entity must still show negligent supervision or some direct negligence by the entity.

In Robinson v. City of Clarksville, Tennessee, No. M2019-02053-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 31, 2023), plaintiffs owned a restaurant in defendant City. In 2002, plaintiffs sold a portion of an empty lot next to the restaurant to defendant. Plaintiffs claim that the mayor at the time promised that the City would install utilities and build a public alleyway on the property. In 2015, plaintiffs decided to build a second restaurant on the empty lot and asked the City to build the promised alleyway, which the City refused to do. Further, while constructing a sewer line, the City inadvertently placed part of the line on plaintiffs’ property. This suit followed, asserting several contract and property claims, as well as a tort claim for intentional interference with business relationships. The trial court dismissed the tort claim against the City pursuant to the GTLA, and dismissal was affirmed on appeal.

The only tort claim at issue in this case was plaintiff’s claim of intentional interference with business relationships. While governmental entities are generally immune from suit, the GTLA specifically removes immunity for certain claims. At issue here was Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-20-205, which states that immunity is not removed “if the injury arises out of…interference with contract rights.” Based on this language, the trial court ruled that immunity was not removed, but the Court of Appeals disagreed with this analysis.


Where defendant governmental entity did not own the park where plaintiff was injured, and plaintiff was attending a concert in the park when she fell, summary judgment based on both the GTLA and Recreational Use Statute was affirmed.

In Costner v. Maryville-Alcoa-Blount County Parks & Recreation Commission, No. E2021-00189-COA-R3-CV, 2022 WL 3092906 (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 3, 2022), plaintiff was attending a concert in a park when she stepped into a hole covered by grass clippings and broke her ankle. The park was owned by the City of Alcoa but controlled by the Maryville-Alcoa-Blount County Parks and Recreation Commission (the Commission).

Plaintiff initially filed a premises liability case against the City of Alcoa, but later filed an amended complaint naming Alcoa, the City of Maryville, Blount County, and the Commission as defendants. The trial court first granted summary judgment to Alcoa, Maryville and Blount County, finding that Alcoa did not control the park, and Maryville and Blount County neither owned nor controlled the park, both of which are required to remove immunity under the GTLA. The Commission later filed its own motion for summary judgment, arguing that it was immune from suit under the GTLA and Recreational Use Statute. The trial court agreed, granting the motion, and summary judgment was affirmed on appeal.

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A provision of the GTLA allowing for the recovery of attorney’s fees by a governmental employee who was the prevailing party in a GTLA suit was constitutional and did not deprive plaintiff of her right to access the courts.

In Taylor v. Miriam’s Promise, No. M2020-01509-COA-R3-CV, 2022 WL 1040371 (Tenn. Ct. App. April 7, 2022, plaintiff filed suit against twelve defendants after she placed her child for adoption at birth but subsequently changed her mind. Two of these defendants were Kellye Reid, a licensed social worker, and Cookeville Regional Medical Center (CRMC), the employer of Ms. Reid. Plaintiff alleged that Ms. Reid had her “execute legal documents while under the influence of medication and falsely led [plaintiff] to believe that she could change her mind,” and that CRMC was vicariously liable for Ms. Reid’s actions.

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Where defendants had no prior notice of foreseeable harm to plaintiff, who was assaulted while he was an inmate at a Tennessee county jail, summary judgment was affirmed.

In Koffman v. Madison County Tennessee, No. W2021-00385-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 17, 2022), plaintiff was arrested and booked into the county jail after violating his probation. Plaintiff was put into a unit that held “ten or more inmates depending upon the number of inmates incarcerated in the jail at any given time.” On the night he was booked, plaintiff was assaulted by a group of inmates and subsequently transported to the hospital for treatment.

Plaintiff filed this suit against the County and the County Sheriff based on the injuries he received in the assault. Defendants moved for summary judgment, which the trial court granted based on a lack of foreseeability, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

Where plaintiff was injured in a car accident when a culvert underneath the road collapsed, and an inspector for defendant city had inspected the culvert the day before the accident and recommended construction begin just three days later to replace the culvert, summary judgment for defendant was reversed. In Carrick v. City of Shelbyville, Tennessee, No. M2020-01218-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 5, 2021), plaintiff was driving down a road owned and controlled by defendant city when a culvert under the road “gave way and the asphalt crumbled,” and plaintiff’s “vehicle became lodged in the resultant hole.” Plaintiff brought this suit under the GTLA, asserting that the city’s immunity was removed pursuant to Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-20-203. The city filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that plaintiff could not show that it had actual or constructive notice of the dangerous condition, and the trial court agreed, granting summary judgment. On appeal, that ruling was reversed.

It was undisputed that the city had the culvert inspected by Mr. Frazier on August 29, 2017, one day before the accident, and that as a result of that inspection, Mr. Frazier created a work order stating that work to replace the culvert would begin on September 1, 2017. The work order further provided that “the dig area will be through the road as we will replace the culvert.” In addition to the work order, the city submitted Mr. Frazier’s affidavit in support of summary judgment, in which he stated that “while the culvert needed replacing, he did not conclude from his inspection that the culvert posed ‘any threat to the stability or integrity of the road.’” The city also submitted affidavits stating that there had been “no previous complaints or reports regarding damage to the relevant portion” of the road.

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Where defendant doctor was an employee of a governmental entity and plaintiffs failed to name the employer in their HCLA suit, dismissal under the Tennessee GTLA was affirmed. In Braylon W. v. Walker, No. W2020-00692-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. July 15, 2021), plaintiffs filed an HCLA suit against defendant doctor based on treatment surrounding the birth of minor plaintiff. The birth occurred at Jackson-Madison County General Hospital, and pursuant to a Physician Employment Agreement, defendant was employed by West Tennessee Medical Group (WTMG) at the time of the birth. WTMG is a governmental entity under the definitions in the Governmental Tort Liability Act.

When plaintiffs filed their complaint, they named only the doctor as a defendant. Defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that “because she was an employee of WTMG, the GTLA require[d] that WTMG also be named a party to the lawsuit.” The trial court granted summary judgment to defendant based on the GTLA, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

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Where plaintiff voluntarily dismissed the governmental entity that employed defendant doctor, then defendant doctor asserted in his answer that the employer was a necessary party under the GTLA, the trial court should have granted plaintiff’s motion to revise the order granting voluntary dismissal pursuant to Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 54.02. In Ingram v. Gallagher, No. E2020-01222-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. July 19, 2021), plaintiff filed an HCLA suit and originally named Dr. Gallagher, Chattanooga Neurosurgery and Spine Group, Dr. Worthington, and Chattanooga-Hamilton County Hospital Authority (Erlanger) as defendants. All named defendants had received proper pre-suit notice. Shortly after filling suit, plaintiff filed a notice of voluntary dismissal without prejudice as to all defendants other than Dr. Gallagher. The trial court entered an order granting the voluntary dismissal, leaving only Dr. Gallagher as a defendant.

When Dr. Gallagher filed his answer to the complaint, he included as a defense “that he was an employee of a governmental entity, Erlanger, and that entity had not been included as a party to the action.” Plaintiff then filed a motion to alter or amend the order of voluntary dismissal, “seeking to set aside the dismissal of Erlanger as a defendant to this action.” Plaintiff cited Rules 54 and 60 in his motion, and he stated that the Erlanger was dismissed inadvertently, as “he was unsure whether Dr. Gallagher was employed by Erlanger because Dr. Gallagher was also listed as being employed by the neurology group.”

The trial court denied plaintiff’s motion to alter or amend the order of voluntary dismissal, and also denied his motion to amend his complaint. Although a later amendment to the complaint was allowed, which added Erlanger as a defendant again, Erlanger was ultimately successfully granted dismissal, and Dr. Gallagher was granted summary judgment on the basis that Erlanger was a required party under the GTLA. This appeal followed, wherein the Court of Appeals ruled that plaintiff’s motion to revise the voluntary dismissal should have been granted.

The Tennessee Court of Appeals has ruled plaintiffs can pursue claims based on recklessness and gross negligence under the GTLA.

In Lawson v. Hawkins County, TN, No. E2020-01529-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. July 14, 2021), plaintiffs filed suit based on the death of decedent in a fatal one-car accident. According to the complaint, decedent was killed when he was “rounding a switchback curve on the mountain when, at 1:45 a.m., he drove into a chasm where Highway 70 had been.” Plaintiffs asserted that another motorist had called 911 at 12:58 a.m. to report that trees were down in a mudslide and that “if someone’s going up the mountain…they’re going to go off the road.” The 911 dispatcher sent the call to Officer Godsey, who arrived at the scene at 1:13 a.m., 30 minutes before the accident. He found a significant mudslide, including a power pole sliding down the mountain. At that time, Officer Godsey and a 911 operator “casually discussed the situation…[and] no action was taken then to shut down the highway or undertake any other preventative measures.” Multiple other calls were made between 911, various government agencies, and the electric company, although the director of the Emergency Management Agency did not arrive on the scene until 3:07 a.m. At 1:46 a.m., Officer Godsey called 911 to report that a vehicle had “hit a rock embankment and flipped over multiple times down the mountain,” and only after this “did any official consider closing the highway.” Notably, a motorist traveling behind decedent was injured when he also drove into the chasm.

In their complaint, plaintiffs asserted that decedent’s death was caused by “Defendants’ gross negligence, recklessness, and failure to take immediate and direct action in response to the substantial risk of catastrophic injury and/or death due to the collapse of Highway 70 on Clinch Mountain.” Defendants all filed motions for judgment on the pleadings, which the trial court granted, ruling that “reckless conduct just cannot move forward under the GTLA,” and that the claims for ordinary negligence were barred by the public duty doctrine. On appeal, dismissal was reversed.

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