Day on Torts Nugget: Be Careful When Suing the State of Tennessee.

Certain claims for personal injury, wrongful death and property damage may be asserted against the State of Tennessee, but different rules apply and there are plenty of pitfalls for those unfamiliar with the law or procedures of litigating in the Claims Commission.  One such pitfall arise at the intersection of the law of claims against the State and the law of comparative fault.

In Moreno v. City of Clarksville[1]  plaintiff filed a claim against the State of Tennessee after a tree on state law fell on his vehicle.  When the claim was not settled, he timely filed a formal complaint with the Claims Commission.  The State of Tennessee then blamed the City of Clarksville for causing the damage and, within the 90-day period provided by §20-1-119 plaintiff sued the City of Clarksville under the Governmental Tort Liability Act in state court.  As permitted by statute,[2] the Claims Commission action was transferred to the Circuit Court for Montgomery County and consolidated with the action pending against the City of Clarksville. [3]

The City of Clarksville then moved to dismiss, saying that it was not sued within the original statute of limitations.  Plaintiff responded saying that he was relying on Tenn. Code Ann. §20-1-119 and that he filed suit against the City well within ninety days of the date the State blamed the City in an amended answer filed in the Claims Commission.  The City did not dispute the later fact, but said §20-1-119 did not apply because an “original complaint” was not filed against the State of Tennessee within the one year statute of limitations.  The City’s factual assertion was true: Moreno filed suit more than one year after the incident.  But Moreno argued that he filed a claim (as he was required to do) within the one year period and filed a complaint with the time period required after denial of his claim.  Thus, he argued that §20-1-119 should apply to save his claim against the City.

The trial judge disagreed with Moreno, and dismissed the case.[4]  The Court of Appeals reversed, saying that written notice Mr. Moreno filed with the Board of Claims was sufficient to give him the right to rely on §20-1-119 if the State later blamed a nonparty.[5]

The Tennessee Supreme Court reversed, saying that Moreno could not rely on §20-1-119 because the filing of a claim within one year did not meet the statutory requirement that the “original complaint” be filed within one year. [6]

Thus, we now know that if a person who asserts a claim against the State of Tennessee wants to preserve the right to right to rely on §20-1-119 to sue a nonparty alleged to be at fault must not only file a claim against with the Claims Commission within one year of the date of incident but must also file the complaint itself with the Commission within one year of the date of the incident. What this means from a practical standpoint is this:  the statute of limitations against the State of Tennessee is reduced from 365 days to 255 days.  Why do we say this?  Under Tenn. Code Ann. §9-8-402(c), a claimant must file a written claim if he wants to assert a claim against the State.  Claimant cannot immediately file a complaint but rather must wait to see if the Division of Claims settles the case. If the Division of Claims does not honor or deny the claim within 90 days after it is filed, the Division of claims automatically transfers the Claim to the Claims Commission.  Then, and only then, can claimant file with the Claims Commission a document which the Tennessee Supreme Court will deem an “original complaint” within the meaning of §20-1-119,

So, if plaintiff file a claim on say, Day 276 after an incident causing him injury or loss, he cannot file an “original complaint” until 90 days later – Day 366, and loses the benefit of §20-1-119 in the event the State of Tennessee asserts fault against a nonparty.  Thus, we have arbitrarily but conservatively set a new statute of limitations for claims filed against the State of Tennessee at 255 days.  If a claim is filed on Day 255 after an incident and the Division of Claims denies or fails to act on it within the 90 day period required by law (Day 345) the claimant will have a mere 20 days to file a complaint with the Claims Commission and, if he does so, §20-1-119 remains available to him.

[1] 479 S.W.3d 795 (Tenn. 2015).

[2] Tennessee Code Annotated § 9–8–404(b) provides for such a transfer.

[3] 479 S.W.3d at 798-800.

[4] Id. at 800-01.

[5] Id. at 801.  The Court of Appeals opinion may be found at 2014 WL 791935 (Tenn.Ct.App. Feb. 25, 2014).

[6] 800-08.   The Court also rejected an effort by Moreno to save the claim by applying Tenn. Code Ann. §9-8-402(b), a tolling provision included in the Board of Claims Act.  The opinions do not indicate whether Moreno also attempted to rely on the discovery rule to avoid the City’s statute of limitations defense.

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