Tennessee Court of Appeals Applies the Special Duty Exception to the Public Duty Doctrine and Affirms Dismissal of Case

Successfully bringing suit in Tennessee for an injury or death allegedly caused by the acts or omissions of a governmental employee is more difficult than a claim against a private citizen or business. Consider, for example, the case of Lynch v. Loudon Cnty., No. E2013-00454-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Dec. 17, 2013).

On a cold, wet, icy winter morning, a deputy sheriff arrives at the scene of a minor, single car accident. The car’s front tires had slid off the roadway preventing the driver from backing the car up. The driver is a woman, alone, wearing a bathrobe and naked underneath. She is not injured, nor is her car damaged.

Before reaching the woman’s vehicle, the deputy encounters the passerby who first stopped to assist the woman and called 911. The passerby tells the deputy that “something is not right” with woman and that she cannot provide a phone number or answer any questions about where she was coming from or going. The passerby will later testify that the woman appeared “sleepy,” “zoned out,” and “not real steady.”

The deputy will testify that upon arrival he went directly to the driver’s side window of the woman’s car. He does not remember the passerby being present at the scene, although he does not refute the passerby’s testimony.

The deputy has a brief conversation with the woman while she is still in her car.  He won’t be able to recall later whether he asked where she was coming from, if he checked her license, registration, or proof of insurance, and whether he got her name or address.

The passerby asks the deputy whether he is going to let the woman go, to which the deputy replies “probably not.” Based on the deputy’s response, the passerby leaves the scene before the tow truck arrives to pull the car back onto the roadway.

The deputy testifies that while speaking with the woman and watching her when she got out of her car to pay the tow truck driver, he observed that she was “clear, alert, conscious, clear speaking, had no problems walking or performing any functions.” However, the tow truck driver testifies that he never saw the woman outside of her car and she paid him by passing the money through the driver’s side window.

Still, the deputy asserts that he did not have reasonable suspicion or probable cause to ask the woman to perform a field sobriety test, much less arrest her. Contrary to what the deputy tells the passerby at the scene, the deputy allows the woman to leave and she drives away in her car. He clears the scene of the accident in a total of 19 minutes.

Shortly thereafter, the woman’s car strikes a utility pole less than two piles from the scene of the prior accident. She is found dead, with her body from the waist up lying underneath her car. 

Toxicology reports confirmed the woman had taken elevated doses of Ambien and Xanax before her death, with the amount of drugs in her system, according to the physician who performed her autopsy, at ten times more than therapeutic levels. A pharmacological expert testified that the combined use of the two drugs greatly impacted their effect, and at such high levels it was doubtful that the woman could walk, much less pass a field sobriety test.

A wrongful death lawsuit was filed against Loudon County Sheriff’s Department under Tennessee’s Governmental Tort Liability Act (“GTLA”). The suit argued that the deputy knew (or should have known) that the woman was impaired and posed a danger to herself and others while driving and that the deputy should have detained her instead of allowing her to drive away.

Loudon County Sheriff’s Department, just as all other local Tennessee governmental entities, had immunity and was not going to be held responsible for the woman’s death unless the plaintiff could successfully argue that one of a few exceptions applied. To overcome immunity, the plaintiff relied on the “special duty exception,” which required proof that the deputy “affirmatively undertook” to protect the woman and that she relied upon the deputy’s undertaking. The case was tried before a judge, and not a jury, as required in all GLTA claims. The judge found that the plaintiff failed to demonstrate that the special duty exception applied and ruled in favor of the sheriff’s department.

Based on the evidence in the record, the Tennessee Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision and found that the deputy did not affirmatively undertake to protect the woman even though the deputy responded to the minor accident, checked the woman’s injury status, and offered to call an ambulance on multiple occasions. The court found that the woman was able to communicate with the deputy and did not appear “helpless.” Further, the court relied upon the deputy’s professional opinion that he had no cause to arrest, detain, or seize the woman because he observed no slurred speech, dilated pupils, smell of alcohol, or bloodshot eyes. According to the court, nothing in the proof supported the claim that the deputy acted to protect or aid the woman. The deputy’s assurances to the passerby that he would not let the woman go were words alone and did not result in the deputy affirmatively undertaking to protect the woman. Thus, the claim did not fall within the exception to overcome immunity granted to the sheriff’s department and the government could not be held liable for any fault for the woman’s death.

In other words, because the deputy did not investigate the scene further and do more to protect the woman, the sheriff’s department could not be held responsible for contributing to the woman’s death. While this does not appear to be a fair result, the trial court and court of appeals were able to support the decision based on the law as it currently exists in Tennessee.

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