Articles Posted in Claims Against Local Governments

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[.]”

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.”

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading