Articles Posted in Claims Against the Government

In Fitzgerald v. Hickman County Government, No. M2017-00565-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. April 4, 2018), plaintiff brought several claims against the county and the county mayor related to his employment termination. The trial court dismissed all claims after defendants filed a motion to dismiss, and the Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of all claims except plaintiff’s claim for false light invasion of privacy.

The basic facts of this case were that plaintiff had worked for the county for over fifteen years, and that the mayor fired him citing “bogus complaints.” When plaintiff attempted to use the grievance procedure, he was sent a letter from the mayor stating that his “grievance claim had been denied.” In addition, plaintiff claimed that at the time of his firing, the mayor promised to create a new job for him, but such a job never came to fruition because the county commission “determined that it could not afford to fund the new position.” Plaintiff also claimed that the mayor had made public statements regarding an alleged extramarital affair and regarding plaintiff receiving “certain compensation in his final payment” as an employee.

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The collateral source rule still applies in Claims Commission cases to bar evidence that a plaintiff actually paid a discounted amount on his or her medical expenses.

In both Estate of Tolbert v. State of Tennessee, No. M2017-00862-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 28, 2018) and Stevens v. State of Tennessee, No. M2017-01114-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 28, 2018), plaintiffs were awarded damages by the Claims Commission due to car accidents caused by state employees. The Claims Commission awarded plaintiffs the full amount of their undiscounted medical bills, plus other damages, and the State appealed, arguing that the damages awarded should have reflected the discounted amounts actually paid by plaintiffs. The Court of Appeals affirmed the damage award of the full, undiscounted amount.

The Court noted that while these appeals were pending, the Tennessee Supreme Court decided Dedmon v. Steelman, 535 S.W.3d 431 (Tenn. 2017), in which it held that “defendants are precluded from submitting evidence of discounted rates accepted by medical providers from the insurer to rebut plaintiffs’ proof that the full, undiscounted charges are reasonable.” The issue in both of these cases, then, was whether Dedmon applied to cases under the Claims Commission Act. In answering this question, the Court in Stevens quoted extensively from and adopted the reasoning of the opinion released for Estate of Tolbert.

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Where plaintiff sued an adjacent landowner for visible water that allegedly made him fall at a storage facility, the Court of Appeals affirmed the holding that the defendant was not liable for the accident.

In Morgan v. Memphis Light Gas & Water, No. W2016-01249-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 6, 2018), plaintiff was looking at a storage unit at Cook Sales’ property in April 2013 when he slipped and fell in a puddle of water. The area where plaintiff fell was visibly wet. Adjacent to the property where the storage facility was located, defendant owned a water tower. Plaintiff brought suit against defendant, a governmental entity, alleging that “the water tank located on [defendant’s] property leaked, causing water to intrude onto Cook Sales’ property and saturate the ground where he fell.”

After a bench trial, the trial court found for defendant, holding that plaintiff failed to show that the “water tower caused or created a dangerous or defective condition;” that plaintiff had failed to show that defendant had notice of any allegedly dangerous condition; and that under the doctrine of comparative fault, plaintiff was “at least 50% at fault and Cook Sales was at least 50% at fault[.]” The Court of Appeals affirmed all of these findings.

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The Tennessee Claims Commission has exclusive subject matter jurisdiction over a claim by a plaintiff that the state “negligently supervised and retained a prison guard who sexually assaulted [an] inmate.” In Vetrano v. State, No. M2015-02474-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 8, 2017), the Court reversed the claim commission’s dismissal of a negligence suit. Plaintiff alleged that she was an inmate at a state women’s prison and was sexually assaulted by a prison guard. She filed an action with the Tennessee Claims Commission alleging that “state employees negligently supervised and retained the prison guard.” According to plaintiff, another inmate had filed a complaint against the guard for assault, and the guard’s supervisors “had actual and/or constructive knowledge that [the guard] was unfit for the job of corrections officer, and it was reasonably foreseeable that he posed an actual threat of harm to the inmates with whom he came in contact.”

The State moved to dismiss the complaint, alleging that under the Claims Commission Act it “could not be liable ‘for the willful, malicious, or criminal acts of state employees.’” (citing Tenn. Code Ann. § 9-8-307(d)). The Claims Commission granted the motion, but the Court of Appeals reversed.

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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 Cook v. State of Tennessee, No. W2016-01914-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. July 27, 2017), the Court affirmed summary judgment in a case where a plaintiff inmate alleged the state was liable for the injuries he suffered after being stabbed by another inmate.

Plaintiff and his cellmate were both inmates at West Tennessee State Penitentiary. They began sharing a cell in October 2010, and on December 6, 2010, cellmate stabbed plaintiff with a handmade knife. Plaintiff filed a complaint with the Tennessee Claims Commission alleging that “the State was liable because [cellmate’s] attack on him was reasonably foreseeable.”

During discovery, it was established that both plaintiff and cellmate were listed as minimum security prisoners (the lowest rating), that the cellmates had a “good relationship” prior to the assault, and that plaintiff had never felt threatened or unsafe around cellmate.  Based on these facts, the State moved for summary judgment, which the claims commission granted and the Court of Appeals affirmed. Continue reading

In Elliott v. State, No. M2016-00392-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. March 13, 2017), the Court of Appeals affirmed the Claims Commission’s finding that plaintiff failed to prove that “the State was negligent in the design, construction, or maintenance of [a] roadway.”

Plaintiff had a car accident on an exit ramp that was designed and maintained by the State. The road was wet from an earlier rain, and the road on the ramp “transition[ed] from asphalt to concrete.” Plaintiff asserted that the road had deteriorated at this transition point, and that “this deterioration caused her vehicle to fly off the roadway and roll down an incline.” Plaintiff pointed out that the State had patched the ramp by putting asphalt into holes. She claimed that “the State was negligent in the design, construction, and maintenance of the roadway and in failing to erect a proper barrier at the edge of the road to prevent vehicles from rolling down the hill.”

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In Hale v. State, No. E2016-00249-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 2, 2017), the Court of Appeals affirmed dismissal of a negligence case because it was based on the failure of the Tennessee Department of Corrections (TDOC) to ensure compliance with a certain statute, and that statute did not “confer a private right of action.”

Plaintiff’s daughter was murdered by Terry Releford while she was married to Mr. Releford and pregnant with his child. Before this marriage, Mr. Releford had spent time in a Tennessee prison for several crimes, including three counts of aggravated rape. Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-13-524 “requires that those convicted of certain offenses, including aggravated rape, remain subject to community supervision for life.” Mr. Releford’s judgment of conviction, however, did not include the community supervision requirement.

At some point during Mr. Releford’s incarceration, a TDOC employee sent a letter to the District Attorney’s office asking for a corrected judgment. No response was received, and the judgment was never corrected. Mr. Releford was released with no community supervision requirement, subsequently met plaintiff’s daughter, and murdered her less than a year later.

In K.G.R. v. Union City School District, No. W2016-01056-COA-R9-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Dec. 14, 2016), the Court of Appeals overturned a denial of summary judgment, determining that the incident that occurred was not foreseeable and that defendant had no duty to protect the minor plaintiff from a sexual assault.

Plaintiff was a sixth grade student enrolled in the special education program at defendant school. Near the end of the school year in 2012, a student told the special education teacher that plaintiff and another boy were in a bathroom stall together. The teacher went to the bathroom, where she found the other student leaving the bathroom, and eventually took both boys to the principal’s office. During an interview of plaintiff, he alleged that the other student had sexually assaulted him in the bathroom.

Plaintiff’s parents brought this negligence action, alleging that the school had a duty to protect plaintiff. The school filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that “the acts against [plaintiff] were not foreseeable.” Three weeks before the incident, plaintiff’s mother wrote a letter to the school principal regarding her concerns that plaintiff was being bullied, specifically naming two students as the perpetrators (neither of which was the student involved in the assault), and stating that plaintiff “was being punched by these students.” According to the mother’s testimony, “she wrote the letter because other students were stealing [plaintiff’s] pencils, picking on him, and calling him names.”

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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.

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