Articles Posted in Uncategorized

Here is the beginning of my “Day on Torts” column for the Tennessee Bar Journal on what a plaintiff should do if the tortfeasor dies before suit is filed.  Click on the link to read the full text of the article.

Your new client thought she could avoid hiring a lawyer and instead work out on her own a settlement with the insurance claims representative for the other driver. The dance lasted 10 months. “Wait until the end of medical treatment.” “Sign these forms.” “Send me your medical bills.” “I need your EOB forms.” “Your employer needs to confirm in writing your lost wages.” And so on.

She (finally) has concerns about whether she is going to be treated fairly and hires you as her lawyer. You have two months to investigate and evaluate the case, and to file a lawsuit. Your chance to settle the case pre-suit is long gone.

A city government cannot be held liable in tort for a drainage problem on a road it does not own or operate caused by a malfunctioning pipe it did not install.

In Walker v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville & Davidson County, No. M2016-00030-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 13, 2018), plaintiff homeowner sued defendant city “for damages to his property caused by storm water runoff under the tort theory of a temporary continuous nuisance.” Plaintiff alleged that storm water runoff from the road he lived on flooded his property, basement and foundation each time it rained, and that he had asked defendant several times to fix a malfunctioning drainage pipe. Defendant moved for summary judgment on the basis that a previous homeowner had actually installed the malfunctioning pipe and that the city was accordingly immune from suit under the GTLA. The trial court granted summary judgment for defendant, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

The evidence submitted in support of defendant’s motion for summary judgment showed that the road plaintiff’s property was on was a state highway, not a city street, and that before plaintiff owned the property the state had “acquired a permanent drainage easement” from the former owners. The state had installed a drainage pipe that funneled water to a ditch, which then funneled water to a creek. Before plaintiff bought the property, however, the previous homeowners enclosed the ditch and put a drainage pipe under the ground where the ditch was previously located, using a mix of both concrete and corrugated metal pipe. Defendant city did not install the pipe or fill in the ditch in question.

Continue reading

Where a landlord evicted a tenant by locking him out and bypassed the legal process outlined in the lease, the landlord was liable for conversion, and the Court of Appeals affirmed an award based on “the present day value of the personal property which Plaintiff claimed was not returned.”

In Philp v. Southeast Enterprises, LLC, No. M2016-02046-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 9, 2018), plaintiff tenant had rented an office space from defendant landlord. After plaintiff failed to pay rent for two months, defendant “changed the locks on the doors and posted a notice on the building entrance stating that Plaintiff had been evicted.” Plaintiff filed suit for various causes of action related to the lease and eviction, including a claim for conversion and punitive damages. After a trial, the trial court found that defendant was liable for conversion, which the Court of Appeals affirmed. The trial court also awarded plaintiff $5,000 in punitive damages, and although the Court of Appeals affirmed the decision to award punitive damages, it vacated the amount and instructed the trial court “to make specific findings of fact and conclusions of law relative to the appropriate factors and enter judgment accordingly.”

Regarding the conversion claim, the Court of Appeals first affirmed that defendant was liable for conversion damages. The Court pointed out that “[b]y locking Plaintiff out, Defendants maintained possession of all of Plaintiff’s property inside the building.” The Court noted that “Defendants bypassed legal process and changed the locks on the door,” and that their “actions of wrongfully evicting Plaintiff from the property allowed them to exercise dominion and maintain control over Plaintiff’s personal property.” The finding that defendants were liable for conversion was thus affirmed.

Continue reading

Where plaintiff failed to have service issued for over a year against the defendant driver in a car accident case, her claim against her uninsured motorist insurance carrier was barred.

In Davis v. Grange Mutual Casualty Group, No. M2016-02239-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Sept. 28, 2017), plaintiff filed suit on March 20, 2015 after a car accident, naming both the defendant driver and her uninsured motorist carrier. The suit was filed within the one-year statute of limitations for personal injury actions, but plaintiff “did not cause a summons to issue to either defendant” until April 19, 2016, which was thirteen months after the complaint was filed. The summons was issued to the driver at his last known address and was returned unserved on April 21st by the sheriff with a notation that the driver was “not to be found in my county.”

On April 25th, “the trial court sua sponte dismissed the action for failure to prosecute.” Plaintiff filed a motion to set the dismissal aside on May 24th, and on the same day process for the insurance company was returned unserved. Second summonses were issued for both defendants on June 6th and 7th, and the driver’s was returned unserved indicating that he had died.

Continue reading

Being incarcerated does not constitute extraordinary cause and does not waive the pre-suit notice and certificate of good faith requirements of the HCLA.

In Kinsey v. Schwarz, No. M2016-02028-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 18, 2017), a pro se prison inmate filed an HCLA suit regarding an allegedly “botched surgical procedure performed on his lower back.” Defendants included two doctors and a medical center. In plaintiff’s complaint, he stated that he “attempted to give [the two doctors] pre-suit notice on February 8, 2016 at their place of employment (or business address) by certified mail returned receipt as required…, but that both notices were returned to him as ‘refused’ by the defendants.” Plaintiff filed his complaint on March 28, 2016, without sending additional notice, and he did not attach a certificate of good faith.

Defendants filed motions to dismiss based on the lack of pre-suit notice and certificate of good faith, prompting plaintiff to file “a document entitled ‘Certificate of Good Faith’ in which he asked the trial court to waive the requirement that he file a certificate of good faith because of his alleged inability to comply due to reasons outside of his control.” Specifically, plaintiff stated that the prison doctor “refuse[d] to get involved in this case” and that his incarceration meant he was “unable to freely consult with other physicians.”

Continue reading

Substantial compliance is sufficient to meet the requirements regarding documents to be attached to a Tennessee HCLA complaint, even when the defendant is a governmental entity.

In Clary v. Miller, No. M2016-00794-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 8, 2017), plaintiff served timely pre-suit notice of her HCLA complaint, and attached a HIPAA-compliant authorization to the pre-suit notice. When she later filed her complaint, she attached copies of the pre-suit notice and proof of service, but she failed to attach copies of the HIPAA authorization.

Defendants, which included a medical center considered a governmental entity, moved to dismiss on the basis that the HIPAA authorizations were not attached to the complaint. The trial court granted the motion, finding that plaintiff substantially complied with the HCLA requirements but that “strict compliance was required because [defendant] was a governmental entity.” The Court of Appeals, however, reversed this holding.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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 Jones v. Behrman, No. W2016-00643-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. June 27, 2017), the Court of Appeals affirmed dismissal of an HCLA claim for failure to file within the applicable statute of limitations

Decedent suffered from several health problems, and in February 2011 she had a capsule endoscopy. Two days later, an x-ray showed that the “capsule was still present.” The following day, tests “showed no bowel obstruction but that the capsule remained in the right lower quadrant.” On February 20, 2011, decedent was admitted to the hospital and tests revealed a bowel obstruction. A procedure was performed, and at some point “the surgeons lacerated or penetrated the small bowel, which required them to resect a portion of the bowel.” The injured site or some other part of the small bowel leaked after the surgery, and decedent developed peritonitis and sepsis. Decedent died on April 21, 2011.

On January 24, 2012, decedent’s family members sent pre-suit notice to the doctors who did the capsule endoscopy and the subsequent bowel surgery. On August 13, 2012, plaintiffs filed their HCLA suit, but that case was voluntarily dismissed on September 27, 2012. Plaintiffs then gave pre-suit notice again before re-filing suit on September 26, 2013 pursuant to the savings statute.

Continue reading

In Stockton v. Ford Motor Co., No. W2016-01175-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. May 12, 2017), the  Court of Appeals vacated a jury verdict in a Tennessee products liability case due to a defective jury verdict form.

Plaintiff was the wife of an auto mechanic who owned his own shop. Husband worked on all types of cars, including cars made by defendant Ford. It was undisputed that for a period of time, all car manufacturers, including Ford, used asbestos in their brake pads and linings. When brake pads and linings are replaced and/or grinded to the correct size, a dust is created, and the dust “can spread into the air and can be inhaled by mechanics and bystanders.” Plaintiff wife never worked directly with the brake pads or linings, but she cleaned the store twice a week and did her husband’s laundry. In 2011, plaintiff was diagnosed with mesothelioma, which was caused by exposure to asbestos.

Plaintiff filed this products liability suit against Ford seeking compensatory and punitive damages. During a jury trial, Ford pointed out that it had sent husband “warnings that brakes and other components contained asbestos,” and that husband had received training in 1977 and 1982 “explicitly warning that breathing dust from asbestos-containing automobile products could be hazardous…” The jury found Ford 71% at fault for plaintiff’s injuries, and plaintiff was awarded a total judgment of just over $3 million, which Ford appealed.

Continue reading