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Articles Posted in Claims Against Local Governments

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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Where plaintiff’s Tennessee GTLA claims all related to the allegation that airport officers used excessive force when interacting with and eventually detaining him, defendant airport authority “retained immunity under the civil rights exception in [Tenn. Code Ann.] § 29-20-205(2).” In Nichols v. Metropolitan Nashville Airport Authority, No. M2020-00593-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. April 15, 2021), plaintiff was asked to leave the Nashville airport by airport police officers. While the officers were escorting plaintiff to the exit, they “attempted an ‘arm bar’ restraint,” which led to plaintiff falling and sustaining facial injuries.

Plaintiff filed this suit under the GTLA, asserting claims against the airport authority for “(1) negligence; (2) negligent infliction of emotional distress; and (3) negligent hiring, training, supervision, and retention.” Defendant filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that this claim arose out of civil rights and that immunity was therefore retained under the GTLA. Although the trial court initially denied the motion, it granted the motion after the opinion in Cochran v. Town of Jonesborough, 586 S.W.3d 909 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2019), was designated for publication. On appeal, dismissal was affirmed.

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Where a minor student was accidentally hit in the head by a shot put thrown by his track and field coach, immunity for the school was removed under the GTLA and a judgment for plaintiff was affirmed. In Spearman v. Shelby County Board of Education, No. W2019-02050-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 15, 2021), plaintiff filed suit on behalf of herself and her minor son after her son was injured at middle school track and field tryouts. The testimony showed that the student was a 12-year-old sixth-grader at the time of the incident. He had played several sports before but had never “participated in shot put and was not familiar with the event.” Marcus Mosby was the track and field coach at the school, and he was in charge of the tryout. Mr. Mosby had never competed in shot put and had not received “proper training on the safety protocols for the shot put event prior to the incident.”

During tryouts, students were taking turns throwing the shot put, which was a metal ball that weighed 8-10 pounds. At some point, Mr. Mosby decided to demonstrate the proper way to throw the shot put. He stood across from a group of students and “verbally instructed and motioned with his hands for the students to move back,” and he took a few steps away from the group. With his back turned toward the students, Mr. Mosby turned and threw the shot put towards the group. Plaintiff’s son, however, had not heard the directions to move back and was five feet closer to Mr. Mosby than the other students. According to testimony, the student was turned sideways and did not see Mr. Mosby throw the shot put. Mr. Mosby realized the student was going to be hit and yelled for him to move, but the student was struck in the side of the head with the shot put.

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Where plaintiff filed a GTLA suit based on the city school system’s failure to remedy a dangerous condition on a sidewalk at its high school, the public duty doctrine did not apply and immunity was removed under the GTLA.

In Lawson v. Maryville City Schools, No. E2019-02194-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Dec. 14, 2020), the plaintiff was taking her grandson to school when she tripped and fell on a deteriorated section of sidewalk. The sidewalk was located on school property, which was owned and controlled by the defendant.

Plaintiff filed this suit under the GTLA, and defendant filed a motion to dismiss, asserting that it was “immune from suit pursuant to the public duty doctrine.” The trial court agreed, dismissing the case, but the Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal.

The Court of Appeals began its analysis by explaining that “both the GTLA and the public duty doctrine are affirmative defenses,” and that when a case potentially involves both, the Court is “to first look to the GTLA.” (internal citations omitted). If the Court determines that the GTLA “does not provide immunity, [it] may look to the general rule of immunity under the public duty doctrine.” (internal citation omitted). Continue reading

Where a sheriff’s deputy owed a duty to the public at large, but not to plaintiff specifically, to protect cars from running into a downed tree on a state highway, the Public Duty Doctrine barred plaintiff’s GTLA suit and dismissal of plaintiff’s case was affirmed.

In Kimble v. Dyer County Tennessee, No. W2019-02042-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Dec. 16, 2020), plaintiff filed suit under the Governmental Tort Liability Act (GTLA) after he was injured in a car accident. According to plaintiff, there was a bad storm the night of the accident and a tree had fallen across the state highway plaintiff was traveling on. Plaintiff’s vehicle ran into the downed tree, causing him injury. The crux of plaintiff’s complaint was that the sheriff’s office had been notified of the downed tree, and that a sheriff’s deputy negligently and/or recklessly left the scene of the downed tree to attend to another emergency “without leaving any sign or signal of a hazardous situation.” Plaintiff’s accident occurred after the deputy had been to and left the downed tree area.

Plaintiff named the county, the sheriff, and the deputy as defendants, and defendants moved to dismiss based on several theories under the GTLA. The trial court granted the motion to dismiss, relying in part on the Public Duty Doctrine, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

Pursuant to the GTLA, “an act or omission is considered operational and immunity is removed either when: (1) the conduct occurs in the absence of a formulated policy guiding the conduct or omission; or (2) when the conduct deviates from an established plan or policy.” (internal citation omitted). Making all reasonable inferences in plaintiff’s favor here, the Court of Appeals found that the deputy’s actions could be considered operational and that immunity was thus removed under the GTLA, unless a defense applied. Continue reading

Where plaintiff failed to file a transcript or a Rule 24 statement of the evidence with the appellate court, the “facts found by the trial court [were] conclusive on appeal” and the ruling for defendant school system was affirming in this GTLA case.

In Johnson v. Millington Municipal Schools, No. W2019-01547-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 27, 2020), plaintiffs filed a GTLA case against defendant school district alleging that defendant “breached its duty to protect [plaintiff student], who was injured in a fight on school grounds.” The fight at issue took place after school in the car pick-up line. At trial, there was conflicting evidence regarding whether plaintiff student got into her sister’s car before the fight began, whether a male student was involved in the fight, whether plaintiff’s mother had previously warned a school counselor that her daughter had been bullied by the other girls involved in the fight, and who instigated the fight. Additionally, there was testimony from several school employees regarding how close they were to where the fight began, as well as what occurred once the fight was broken up.

In its final order, the trial court found that plaintiff student had already gotten into her sister’s car but then exited it and “physically confronted” two girls who had said expletives to her. The court also found that there were teachers present in the area watching the students, that there was a sheriff’s deputy in the area, and that plaintiff’s mother had not given the school prior warning about issues between the girls. Based on these findings, the trial court ruled that plaintiffs “failed to meet their burden to show that [defendant] was negligent.”

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Where a middle school student was injured when he tripped on his backpack strap, beginning a chain of events that knocked down a chair that was stacked on top of a table and injured his hand, summary judgment was affirmed based the lack of a dangerous condition and the injury not being foreseeable.

In Landry v. Sumner County Board of Education, No. M2019-01696-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. June 30, 2020), plaintiff was an 11-year-old student sitting with friends in his school cafeteria as he waited for the bell to ring to begin the school day. At this school, the chairs were always placed upside down on the top of the tables the day before so the custodians could clean. In the mornings, the kids would take down a chair to sit. On this particular morning, plaintiff’s backpack strap had unknowingly become wrapped around the leg of his chair. When plaintiff stood to leave, he tripped on the strap. As he fell, he pushed his chair away, and that chair hit a chair that was still upside down on a table. The upside down chair fell and hit plaintiff’s hand, severing the tip of one of his fingers.

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