Recently, the Tennessee Court of Appeals reviewed the case of Lake v. The Memphis Landsmen in its third trip to the court. A number of issues were raised in the appeal, but by far the most interesting one concerned the plaintiffs’ contention that the trial court erred in including a non-party who plaintiffs previously settled with on the jury verdict form. The plaintiffs also contended that to the extent the non-party was properly included on the form, the trial court should have instructed the jury on the effect of allocating negligence to the non-party. Why is this issue important to the plaintiffs? Because the jury handed down an $8,543,530 verdict but attributed 100% fault to the non-party.
This case concerned a wreck between a passenger bus and a concrete truck. The concrete truck took a left turn and struck the bus causing it to collide with a light pole and eject the plaintiff and resulting in a traumatic brain injury to the plaintiff. The plaintiffs settled with the concrete truck defendant before trial and then proceeded to trial against several other defendants on various theories of liability concerning the passenger bus.
In this appeal, the Court of Appeals first explained that Tennessee has a system of modified comparative fault, adopted by the Tennessee Supreme Court in 1992 in the landmark case of McIntyre v. Balentine, 833 S.W.2d 52,56 (Tenn. 1992). Under this system, fault is apportioned among all parties in proportion to their degree of culpability, and a defendant is only liable for the percentage of damages that his or her own negligence caused. In McIntyre, the court also adopted the non-party defense, allowing juries to apportion fault to non-parties with culpability. McIntyre, 833 S.W.2d at 58.