Articles Posted in Comparative Fault

A surviving spouse maintains priority to file a wrongful death action, even if the surviving spouse’s alleged negligence caused or contributed to the decedent’s death.

In Nelson v. Myres, No. M2015-01857-SC-R11-CV (Tenn. March 5, 2018), decedent died in a car accident. The daughter filed a wrongful death action, naming several defendants, including decedent’s surviving husband. According to daughter, husband “was under the influence of an intoxicant at the time of the accident” and his actions disqualified him from maintaining the suit (husband was “ultimately incarcerated for vehicular homicide”). Husband filed a wrongful death action, naming only the other driver as a defendant, and the other driver asserted comparative fault against husband in his answer.

Husband moved to dismiss daughter’s wrongful death action, claiming that he had the superior right to bring the case, and the trial court agreed. The Court of Appeals, however, reversed, holding that husband “had an inherent conflict of interest because, due to his conduct in bringing about the accident, he would be both a defendant and a plaintiff in [decedent’s] wrongful death action.” The Court of Appeals held that “only [daughter’s] lawsuit would fully prosecute [decedent’s] cause of action.” Husband appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which reversed the Court of Appeals decision, reinstating husband as the proper person to maintain the wrongful death action.

Continue reading

Where a drainage cut in a concrete platform was visible but not open and obvious, a finding that the plaintiff was only twenty percent at fault for his fall was affirmed on appeal.

In Osborne v. The Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, No. M2017-01090-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 22, 2018), plaintiff fell while visiting a city-owned facility for trash that was too large for regular trash trucks. The center had two levels, with the upper level being about five feet off the ground. On the edge of the upper platform there was a 26-inch-wide concrete barrier, and this barrier had 15-inch-long drainage cuts. There were signs stating “Please Use Care When You Unload Items” and telling children to stay in the vehicle, but there were no signs about the drainage cuts, no verbal warnings, and no markings or paint to draw attention to the cuts. Plaintiff had been to this center many times, but he had never been directed to this particular area. When he got out of his truck, he stepped onto the barrier and sidestepped toward the back of his truck without looking down at the barrier. As he was walking, not holding onto his truck, he stepped into the drainage cut and fell five feet, injuring his arm.

Continue reading

Where a defendant adds an affirmative defense asserting comparative fault against a non-party more than two years after the complaint was originally filed, such assertion may be appropriate and timely if the defendant was diligent in obtaining information about the potential tortfeasor.

In Santore v. Stevenson, No. W2017-01098-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 20, 2018), plaintiff was injured when he was hit by a vehicle at a truck stop. Plaintiff filed suit against Cordova Concrete, Inc. and its employee (Cordova) on July 8, 2014. At some later point, Cordova learned that a 911 call had been made from the accident scene, and it sent a subpoena to the City of Memphis to obtain a recording of the call. When the city did not respond, Cordova sent a public records request, and thereafter received an audio file of the call and a Background Event Chronology.

Cordova found a number listed in the chronology and called it multiple times, finally identifying the 911-caller as a truck driver. Cordova arranged to depose the truck driver on August 29, 2016, and during that deposition the caller stated that an Averitt truck hit plaintiff. Based on this information, on September 20, 2016, Cordova filed a motion to amend its answer and assert an affirmative defense of comparative fault against Averitt and its unknown driver. This filing came “more than two years after the complaint was filed but less than three months after obtaining the public records from the City of Memphis.” Cordova and plaintiff agreed to allow the amendment, and plaintiff then amended the complaint to add Averitt and the unknown driver as defendants.

If a plaintiff originally names a defendant then later voluntarily dismisses that defendant, the plaintiff may be able to re-name the defendant in an amended complaint pursuant to Tenn. Code Ann. § 20-1-119 after another defendant asserts comparative fault against the previously nonsuited defendant. This result may not be affected by the fact that the same defendant was named as a potential comparative tortfeasor in the answer to the original complaint.

In Scales v. H.G. Hill Realty Co., LLC, No. M2017-00906-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 30, 2018), plaintiff fell in a grocery store on February 19, 2014. She filed suit against four entities that owned or operated the store on December 4, 2014 for various negligence and premises liability claims. The defendants included two entities related to Publix (the Publix defendants) and two related to the owners of the property (the Hill defendants). The Publix defendants filed an answer on January 8, 2015, in which they asserted as an affirmative defense the comparative fault of the Hill defendants.

After serving discovery requests on plaintiff, the Hill defendants filed a motion to compel. Plaintiff subsequently voluntarily dismissed the Hill defendants, with an order of dismissal without prejudice being entered on May 29, 2015.

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 Boshears v. Brooks, No. E2015-01915-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. July 6, 2016), plaintiff asserted on appeal that the trial judge had given incorrect jury instructions in the underlying jury trial. The Court of Appeals, however, affirmed.

Plaintiff was riding in a car with his girlfriend when they were hit by a vehicle driven by defendant. Defendant was 78-years-old and blind in one eye, and he had been to his doctor that day to report blurry vision. His doctor had referred him to the ER, and the accident occurred after defendant had been released from the ER. Defendant’s theory at trial was that he had a stroke while driving, “which resulted in an unforeseeable loss of consciousness leading to the accident.” Defendant presented expert testimony supporting his theory of the case. Plaintiff, on the other hand, attempted to show that defendant “had suffered vision problems for years, and that, essentially, he had no business driving on the day of the accident.” Plaintiff “attempted to cast doubt on whether [defendant] had been unconscious during the accident,” and witness statements regarding defendant’s condition after the wreck varied.

While charging the jury, the trial court included instructions on both sudden emergency and loss of consciousness. The jury instructions included the following:

…A person faced with a sudden emergency is required to act as a reasonably careful person placed in a similar position. A sudden emergency will not excuse the actions of a person whose own negligence created the emergency.

If you find there was a sudden emergency that was not caused by any fault of the person whose actions you are judging, you must consider this factor in determining and comparing fault.

A sudden loss of consciousness or physical incapacity experienced while driving which is not reasonably foreseeable is a defense to a negligent action. …To constitute a defense, the defendant must establish that the sudden loss of consciousness or physical capacity was not reasonably foreseeable to a prudent person…

After deliberation, the jury found defendant not at fault for the accident.

Continue reading

In Crutchfield v. State, No. M2015-01199-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. April 18, 2016), plaintiff sued the State for alleged negligence regarding a fire alarm in her college dorm room at Tennessee Technological University (TTU), a state university. While the claims commission found for plaintiff and awarded her damages, the Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the plaintiff failed to prove proximate cause.

Plaintiff was hearing-impaired, with hearing loss of around 50% in her right hear and 75% in her left ear. When she started school at TTU her freshman year, she requested permission to live off campus but was denied. Instead, TTU worked with plaintiff to install a supplemental alarm system in her dorm room. To accommodate plaintiff, TTU gave her a single room in a dormitory and installed a SilentCall supplemental alarm system therein, which consisted of a strobe light and bed shaker that could be triggered either by a smoke detector or when a doorbell outside her room was pushed. If smoke were detected, a high pitch alarm that was mounted on the wall above her bed would sound as well. In addition to this supplemental alarm system, plaintiff’s room was also equipped with the standard alarm that all rooms had, which consisted of a speaker above her door. This alarm was the same in every room and would sound for fires or fire drills.

One morning while plaintiff was sleeping, she woke up to a high-pitch alarm and went outside. While she initially believed it was the supplemental alarm above her bed, it was later determined to be the standard alarm above her door that was sounding. Based on the time the alarm began and when plaintiff testified to have woken up, plaintiff slept through the alarm for around fifteen minutes before being awoken. After this incident, plaintiff experienced increased difficulty with her hearing, and a doctor diagnosed her with a noise-induced type injury that significantly reduced her hearing, leaving her essentially deaf without hearing aids.

Continue reading

In Brown v. Mercer-Defriese, No. E2015-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 25, 2016), plaintiff was touring a home that she was considering renting when she tripped over a threshold/step. The threshold joined two rooms in the house, and the elevation difference from one floor to the other was three inches. The flooring in one room was tile, while the adjoining room was hardwood and the threshold itself was wood, but the evidence suggested that the flooring was all very similar in color.

Plaintiff had already traversed the threshold once, but testified that she did not notice the elevation change at that time, and that when she was traversing it a second time she did not notice the threshold and tripped, suffering serious injuries. Plaintiff brought this premises liability action, alleging that this step constituted an unreasonably dangerous condition. Plaintiff stressed the similarity in color between the two adjoining floors, and noted that the fall occurred when it was getting darker outside and thus more difficult to see. Plaintiff’s expert testified that the step in question was a “tripping hazard” due to its height and the fact that the entire area was essentially the same color. He further testified that the Consumer Product Safety Commission “has determined that stairs, ramps and landings are among the most hazardous consumer products in the United States, and classified a step with a riser less than 6.25 inches high as high risk.” (internal quotations omitted).

In response, the defendants asserted that the threshold was open and obvious and that it did not violate the relevant building code. Defendants also alleged that the threshold was a stair, which is a “common feature in homes and…not inherently dangerous[.]” (citation omitted). Defendants called two experts to testify, and both stressed that the threshold did not violate building code, but one admitted that he believed the step to be a “trip hazard.”

In Jones v. Bradley County, No. E2015-00204-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 15, 2016), plaintiff sued Bradley County after she collided with a truck responding to a fire at a red-light intersection. Plaintiff had the green light at the intersection. Defendant, a fire rescue employee, was driving a Ford F-250 truck that was equipped with a siren and emergency lights. Defendant proceeded to turn left against a red-light, at which time plaintiff’s car collided with defendant’s truck, causing plaintiff significant injuries.

Bradley County relied on Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-8-108, which “provides privileges to emergency vehicle drivers under certain circumstances.” This statute allows emergency vehicle drivers to “proceed past a red or stop signal[,]” but still requires the driver “to drive with due regard for the safety of all persons[.]” While analyzing this case, though, the Court pointed out that that “[t]he obligation to exercise due care is, thus, not excused by the fact that the [emergency] driver is responding to an emergency call.” (citation omitted).

Bradley County further asserted that the sole cause of this accident was plaintiff’s failure to comply with Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-8-132, which provides that “upon the immediate approach of an authorized emergency vehicle making use of audible and visual signals…the driver of every other vehicle shall yield the right-of-way.” The Court pointed out that, when previously applying this statute, the Court has “noted the requirement of due care when entering an intersection even under authority of a green light” and “observed that if plaintiff should have heard the siren or should have seen the blue lights flashing, she…cannot evade her duty to yield to an emergency vehicle by saying that she did not hear and did not see because she did not look.” (citation and internal quotations omitted). In response to this argument, plaintiff pointed to the County Rescue Service operations manual, claiming that defendant violated the portions of the manual that stated that emergency drivers should “slow to a safe speed at which a stop could be made, and insure that all traffic has yielded” and “change the siren mode” when approaching an intersection. Plaintiff further argued that the evidence showed that defendant did not drive with due care through the intersection.

Continue reading