Interference with business relationship claim abated on defendant’s death.

Plaintiffs’ claim for tortious interference with a business relationship based on an email written by defendant abated upon defendant’s death.

In Stockdale v. Helper, No. M2022-00846-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. May 8, 2024), plaintiffs worked as employees of a police department. After a department investigation, defendant District Attorney wrote an email to the city manager stating that she would not be able to prosecute cases based solely on investigations done by plaintiffs. Based on this email, the city manager terminated plaintiffs.

After filing a federal suit in which the federal court declined to exercise jurisdiction over the state claims, plaintiffs filed this case. Plaintiffs asserted claims for (1) tortious interference with a business relationship and prospective business relationships and (2) official oppression under a negligence per se theory. The trial court dismissed the claims, ruling that defendant was entitled to absolute immunity and qualified immunity. Plaintiffs filed an appeal, and defendant died while the appeal was pending. Defendant’s personal representative was substituted into the case, and the personal representative argued that the claims abated upon defendant’s death.

Tenn. Code Ann. § 20-5-102 addresses abatement of claims, providing that civil claims do not abate “except actions for wrongs affecting the character of the plaintiff.” The Tennessee Supreme Court previously found that “actions for libel, for malicious prosecution, and for breach of a marriage contract, among others, have all been held to involve the character of the plaintiff.” (internal citation omitted).

Looking first to the tortious interference with a business relationship claim, the Court stated that the type of evidence and type of damages associated with a claim weigh into whether “wrongs affecting the character of the plaintiff are involved.” “If evidence as to character is competent, then it necessarily follows that the question of character is directly involved.” (internal citation omitted). The Court noted that “a plaintiff’s reputation is itself within the scope of inquiry under a claim for tortious interference with a business relationship[.]” (internal citation omitted). It further pointed out that damages could be recovered for injury to reputation under this claim. Accordingly, the Court ruled that this claim abated upon defendant’s death.

Regarding the negligence per se claim, the Court avoided deciding whether such claim abated upon defendant’s death. Instead, the Court pointed out that the trial court dismissed this claim due to qualified immunity. Because plaintiffs did not properly raise the issue of qualified immunity in their appellate brief, dismissal was affirmed.

The issue of abatement upon death of a defendant does not come up often. If you are litigating a case where this might be an issue, this opinion could be a helpful reference.

The Court of Appeals released this opinion seven months after oral arguments in this case.

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