Tennessee law of tort liability of local governments gives rise to some strange scenarios, but this one is odder than most.
In Harp v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, No. M2012-02047-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 22, 2014), the defendant, Metro, appealed a judgment entered in favor of one of its employees, the plaintiff, who was seriously injured when he was hit by a Metro school bus driven by another Metro employee who tested positive for marijuana and cocaine after the incident.
As a local governmental entity, Metro is generally immune from suit. Tennessee’s Government Tort Liability Act (“GTLA”) sets forth specific exceptions when immunity can be removed. One situation is for claims brought by those who are injured by the negligent acts of governmental employees. Another instance is when a person is injured by a governmental employee’s negligent operation of a vehicle. The plaintiff in Harp argued that both exceptions applied to remove Metro’s immunity.
Generally speaking, when a plaintiff sues for negligence, the defendant responds that it (or its employee) acted reasonably and that the conduct at issue didn’t rise to the level of negligence. In other words, the defendant argues that it (or its employees) didn’t do anything wrong. Only under very, very rare circumstances would a defendant argue that its conduct (or its employee’s conduct) exceeded negligence and rose to the level of recklessness, willfulness, or gross negligence.
Harp is an example of one of those extremely rare occasions.
Because immunity is only removed for negligent conduct of governmental employees, Metro tried to argue that its bus driver was beyond negligent so it could remain immune and escape liability.
The key issue in Harp is that at trial Metro failed to carry its burden of proving that its bus driver’s conduct constituted more than mere negligence when she drove into the plaintiff. Just because the bus driver tested positive for marijuana and cocaine after crashing into the plaintiff does not necessarily mean that the bus driver was reckless, willful, or grossly negligent. Importantly, under Tennessee law, Metro still had to prove that its bus driver was intoxicated at the time she drove into the plaintiff and that the bus driver’s intoxication caused the plaintiff’s injuries.
Metro, however, failed to present any evidence that the bus driver was impaired at the time of the collision with the plaintiff, or explain the impact the drugs would have had on the bus driver’s ability to operate the bus, or present evidence that the bus driver operated the bus erratically, or that the drugs otherwise impacted the bus driver’s activities on the day of the incident.
Nor could Metro satisfy its burden of proving that the bus driver was intoxicated and that her intoxication caused the plaintiff’s injuries by relying on similar allegations in the plaintiff’s complaint. The plaintiff’s allegations were based “upon information and belief,” and the plaintiff testified that his pleadings about the bus driver being under the influence at the time of the collision were based on workplace rumors. Further, the bus driver testified that she did not use drugs on the day of the incident and that she lacked the financial resources to challenge the unexpected positive drug test results. The trial evidence therefore fell short of establishing that the bus driver was more probably than not intoxicated at the time of the incident and that her intoxication caused the plaintiff’s injuries. Hence, the appellate court in Harp held that Metro was not immune from suit and affirmed the plaintiff’s verdict.