Articles Posted in Claims Against Local Governments

Where video footage involving an altercation between a high school basketball coach and a student from another school was open to more than one interpretation, summary judgment for the coach on the student’s assault and battery claims was reversed.

In Kelley v. Root, No. W2022-01625-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 29, 2024), plaintiffs were a high school student and his mother, and plaintiff student had been involved in a multi-person altercation between two opposing high school basketball teams. Video of the altercation showed defendant coach making contact with the student, and the student then losing his balance, falling, and injuring himself. While the coach maintained that he was separating plaintiff student from one of his own players and used no more force than necessary, the student argued that the coach “became an active participant in this fight and forcefully punched [the student].”

Plaintiff filed this case asserting various claims against both the coach and the board of education. The trial court granted summary judgment to defendants on all claims, but the Court of Appeals reversed that ruling as to the claims for assault and battery against the coach.

Where plaintiffs alleged that defendant town negligently provided traffic control at a public festival, but the duty to provide safe traffic control was owed to the public at large, the public duty doctrine shielded the town from liability.

In King v. Town of Selmer, Tennessee, No. W2023-00390-COA-R9-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 8, 2024), plaintiffs filed suit after their two relatives were hit by a car and killed during a public festival in defendant town. The town had helped organize the event in partnership with several other entities. The town developed a traffic-control plan, which included using barrels and sawhorses to block certain streets and create a pedestrian-only zone. During the festival, a 91-year-old man drove through the barricades and hit the plaintiffs’ relatives, killing them.

Plaintiffs filed this GTLA suit against the town, alleging that it was negligent in developing the traffic control plan. Plaintiffs also asserted a joint-venture claim against the town. Defendant town moved for summary judgment based on the public duty doctrine, which the trial court denied, but the Court of Appeals reversed that denial.

Where plaintiff filed suit against several governmental entities, including an emergency 911 board, based on the failure of the multiple entities to respond to and close a road that suffered a mudslide in a timely manner, the public duty doctrine barred plaintiff’s claims against two of those entities. For the claim against the 911 board, however, immunity was removed by plaintiff’s claim of gross negligence pursuant to Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-20-108, and the claim fell within an exception to the public duty doctrine, allowing plaintiff to proceed against that defendant only.

In Lawson v. Hawkins County, No. E2020-01529-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Dec. 5, 2023), plaintiff filed a GTLA claim after her husband was killed when his car rolled down a mountain after a portion of highway on the mountain was washed away by a mudslide. On the night of the accident, a driver called 911 to warn that the road was washed away at 12:58 a.m. A sheriff’s deputy arrived at the scene at 1:13 a.m., who then called 911 again to discuss the situation. Neither the deputy nor the dispatcher suggested closing the road. The 911 dispatcher placed several calls to various agencies, but at around 1:46 am, the deputy called 911 again reporting that plaintiff’s husband’s car had flipped down the mountain. Shortly thereafter, the deputy stated that a second car had gone down the mountain, at which time the dispatcher stated that she would ask a neighboring county to block the road.

The trial court granted defendants’ motions for judgment on the pleadings, finding that the GTLA “gave defendants immunity from claims alleging recklessness and that the public-duty doctrine independently barred any claims based on negligence.” In its first opinion in this case, the Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the GTLA “did not provide immunity for claims based on gross negligence or recklessness.” On appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court, the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals, holding that “when the GTLA removes immunity for negligence, it does so for ordinary negligence only.” The case was then remanded back to the Court of Appeals.

Where a plaintiff’s negligence claim against a city was based on a Tennessee city’s failure to inspect the LED lights on a crosswalk sign, the city retained immunity under the GTLA and summary judgment was affirmed.

In Packard v. Bentley, No. E2022-00982-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Oc.t 23, 2023), plaintiff filed suit against several defendants, including the city of Gatlinburg, after he was hit by a car while using a crosswalk in Gatlinburg. The crosswalk and road were owned by the State, but the city owned a crosswalk sign on the side of the road. After a similar incident many years prior, the city had added LED lights to the sign, but the lights were not operational at the time of plaintiff’s accident.

The city filed a motion for summary judgment, which the trial court granted on three grounds. The Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment, ruling that the city retained its immunity under the GTLA in this case.

Where plaintiff filed suit against a county based on an alleged sexual assault by a county employee that occurred when minor plaintiff was detained at the county’s juvenile detention center, the trial court’s ruling that the county “retained immunity under the Governmental Tort Liability Act because the claims against the county arose out of civil rights claims” was affirmed.

In Betty H. v. Williamson County, No. M2022-00300-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 14, 2023), plaintiff filed suit asserting multiple claims against the county and county employees. Plaintiff alleged that while she was detained at the county’s juvenile detention center, a county employee sexually assaulted her two times. Plaintiff eventually voluntarily dismissed the claims against the county employees but moved forward with her claims against the county.

After discovery, the county filed a motion for summary judgment based on several grounds. The trial court granted the motion, ruling that plaintiff’s claims arose out of civil rights claims and that the county therefore retained immunity under the GTLA. The trial court made additional findings as well, but the Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment based solely on the immunity provided by the GTLA.

Where a defense verdict in a GTLA bench trial was based largely on credibility, the verdict was affirmed on appeal.

In Ware v. Metro Water Services, a Division/Agency of Metropolitan Government of Nashville, Davidson County, Tennessee, No. M2022-01114-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. May 30, 2023), plaintiff filed a GTLA case after she fell “due to an unsecure water meter valve cover” in her sister’s yard. During a bench trial, the evidence focused largely on the practice and habit of Metro employees in closing a water meter valve cover when they finished working on it. The evidence showed that the water meter plaintiff fell into had been serviced in July before plaintiff’s fall in September, and plaintiff asserted that said employee had been negligent by not properly recovering the meter.

The employee who performed that work in July testified that he had worked for Metro for over 19 years and typically worked on about 4,000 work orders per year. He testified that he always secured the cover before leaving a job, and that he always put his foot on the lid, stomped on it, and walked away by stepping on it. He testified that there was no doubt in his mind that he had secured the cover in question.

Where plaintiff originally filed a health care liability suit under the GTLA against multiple defendants, but before any responsive pleading was filed plaintiff filed an amended complaint naming only the physician as a defendant, a subsequent notice and order of voluntary dismissal entered as to the defendants not named in the amended complaint were “of no legal effect.” The original defendants other than the physician were removed from the action through the filing of the amended complaint.

In Ingram v. Gallagher, — S.W.3d —, No. E2020-01222-SC-R11-CV (Tenn. May 17, 2023), plaintiff filed an HCLA suit against multiple defendants, including the physician and the hospital at which the physician worked. Because the hospital was a governmental entity, the GTLA applied to this case. After filing his original complaint but before any responsive pleading had been filed, plaintiff filed an amended complaint naming only the physician as a defendant. Five minutes after the amended complaint was filed, plaintiff filed a notice of voluntary dismissal as to the hospital and other defendants, and an order of voluntary dismissal was entered the following day.

When defendant physician filed his answer to the amended complaint, he raised as a defense that the complaint should be dismissed under the GTLA, as Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-20-310(b) required that since the physician was an employee of a governmental entity, the governmental entity must also be a party to the action. Subsequently, plaintiff “filed a motion to amend his complaint in an effort to reinstate [the hospital] as a defendant.” Plaintiff also “filed a motion to alter or amend the order dismissing [the hospital] as a defendant on the grounds that ‘[the hospital] was inadvertently dismissed in light of the affirmative defense assertation by a co-defendant…that [the hospital] is a necessary party to this action.’” The trial court denied the motion to alter or amend the dismissal order, but it eventually allowed plaintiff to amend his complaint after a second motion to amend was filed.

Where a GTLA case involves both governmental and non-governmental defendants and a party demands a jury trial, the entire case is to be heard by the jury.

In Vandyke v. Cheek, No. M2022-00938-COA-R10-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. May 3, 2023), plaintiff filed suit after a car accident caused in part by a malfunctioning traffic light. Defendants in the case included Montgomery County and other governmental entities as well as the other driver, a non-governmental entity. Plaintiff requested a jury trial, and the governmental entities asked for the case to be severed so that the claims against the governmental entities would be heard in a bench trial. The trial court granted the motion, but in this extraordinary appeal, the Court of Appeals reversed the order severing the claims and remanded the case to be heard by a jury as a whole.

Before 1994, the GTLA provided that cases against governmental entities were to be heard “without the intervention of a jury,” and it provided that jury demands for claims against non-governmental entities could be severed and heard separately from claims against governmental parties. In 1994, however, the GTLA was amended.

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.

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