Articles Posted in Claims Against the Government

Where a Claims Commissioner credited the testimony of defendant’s expert over plaintiffs’ expert in a wrongful death case, the Court of Appeals affirmed the ruling.

In Jones v. State of Tennessee, No. M2017-02198-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. July 24, 2019), plaintiffs’ son was a football player at Tennessee State University (TSU). While running a drill at practice one day, the son collapsed after suffering a sudden cardiac arrest. Two trainers rushed to respond, but they did not immediately recognize the situation as a cardiac arrest. The trainers called 911, and while on the phone, the son had a seizure and stopped breathing. At that time, the trainers began CPR and sent for an AED that was stored in the trainers’ van. The AED was never used, as the paramedics arrived before it was retrieved. The son was not able to be revived and was pronounced dead at the hospital. The autopsy listed his cause of death as “a fatal arrhythmia of his heart due to scar tissue,” and the report noted that “his heart’s right atrium and ventricle were enlarged” and that there were “extensive amounts of scar tissue throughout the left and right ventricles.”

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Lay witness testimony should have been admitted regarding the likely source of gravel on a road after road construction, and summary judgment in this case was overturned.

In Flagg v. Hudson Construction Company, No. E2017-01810-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. May 28, 2019), plaintiff crashed his motorcycle on a recently paved section of a state highway. Plaintiff alleged that an excessive amount of loose gravel left over from the construction caused the crash, and he brought negligence suits against the construction company and the state. The trial court granted summary judgment to defendants on all claims, holding that lay witness testimony regarding the likely source of the loose gravel on the road should be excluded, but the Court of Appeals reversed.

The evidence at trial showed that defendant construction company was contracted to resurface the road, and that the process involved laying rock chips and adhesive materials on the road, “followed by a thin layer of microsurfacing for a smoother driving surface.” The company “periodically cleaned excess gravel and debris from the road throughout the paving process,” but at the end it “only cleaned those portions of the road it deemed necessary for the permanent striping to adhere properly.” The stripes were put on the road on October 16th and 17th, and a TDOT supervisor inspected the project on October 19th. He stated that he “looked for excess gravel, overall cleanliness, and the integrity of the permanent striping,” but that he did the majority of his inspection while driving his vehicle and only stopped and got out “when he deemed it necessary.” He found no problems and notified the construction company that the work was acceptable that day.

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When a case that should have been filed with the Claims Commission was filed in circuit court and did not “pertain to the negligent operation or maintenance of any motor vehicle or any other…conveyance,” the trial court could not transfer the case to the Claims Commission and dismissal was affirmed.

In Powell v. Tennessee Department of Correction, No. M2018-01677-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. May 6, 2019), plaintiff filed a pro se complaint in circuit court alleging that TDOC employees injured him “’by gross negligent acts or omissions within the scope of their employment’ in the handling of Plaintiff’s prison disciplinary hearing.” The trial court dismissed the case, finding that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction, and it denied plaintiff’s request to transfer the case. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

“[A]s a general rule, claims for monetary damages against the State may be heard only by the Claims Commission.” (citing Tenn. Code Ann. § 9-8-307(a)(1)). Because plaintiff’s claims did not fall into any exception to this rule, the trial court correctly ruled that it did not have subject matter jurisdiction over this case.

 

Where the Claims Commissioner’s ruling for defendant on a negligence suit did not include conclusions of law regarding both of plaintiffs’ theories, the order of dismissal was deemed deficient and was vacated by the Court of Appeals.

In Kim v. State, No. W2018-00762-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 26, 2019), plaintiffs filed a negligence claim after their six-year-old son fell from a fifth-floor balcony at a state-owned hotel. Plaintiffs were guests of the hotel as part of a church group, and while checking out, the son became separated from his parents. The son went upstairs to the room that plaintiffs had been staying in, and despite having already been cleaned, the door to the room was ajar. The son entered the room, went onto the balcony, climbed on top of the railing, and ultimately fell, sustaining major injuries. Testimony at trial established that it was both hotel and industry policy for a housekeeper to ensure that the door to a hotel room was locked after it had been cleaned, and it was undisputed that the son could not have gained access to the room if it had been locked. It was further established that the housekeeper who cleaned this particular room “had previously been reprimanded for neglecting to secure a room after cleaning it.”

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A claim that a medical student was wrongly dismissed without the proper process does not fall under the jurisdiction of the Tennessee Claims Commission.

In Williams v. State, No. E2017-00626-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. April 23, 2018), plaintiff had been dismissed from ETSU medical school, and he filed a complaint with the Tennessee Claims Commission alleging that his “permanent dismissal was negligently done by Defendant without a hearing or other university procedures required by the catalog and student hand book.” The Claims Commission dismissed the complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

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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.