No Duty to Help Plaintiff With Service of Process

When a sheriff’s deputy delivered service of process to an office employee at a front desk, that employee and clinic had no duty to assist plaintiff in ensuring that process was served in the proper manner.

In Koczera v. Steele, No. E2017-02056-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 20, 2018), plaintiff had previously filed an HCLA claim against a Dr. O’Connor. When a sheriff’s deputy arrived at the office to serve Dr. O’Connor, defendant Steele was at the front desk, and the deputy handed her the papers and said they were for Dr. O’Connor. Steele gave the papers to Dr. Pearson, who then gave them to Dr. O’Connor, and upon motion by Dr. O’Connor, he was dismissed from the HCLA suit due to insufficient service of process.

This negligence suit followed, wherein plaintiff alleged that defendants Steele, Dr. Pearson, and the clinic in which they worked were liable for “prevent[ing] the doctor from being served with process in the healthcare liability action.” The trial court granted summary judgment to defendants, finding that no duty existed, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

In a negligence action, a plaintiff must prove that defendants owed plaintiff a duty of care. While Tennessee law generally imposes a duty on persons to “refrain from engaging in affirmative acts that a reasonable person should recognize as involving an unreasonable risk …of harm to another,” liability for nonfeasance is different, as Tennessee law “generally [has] declined to impose a duty to act or to rescue.” (internal citations omitted). Courts only impose an affirmative duty to act in certain circumstances, including “where the defendant has a special relationship with either the individual who is the source of the danger or the person who is at risk[.]” (internal citation omitted).

Here, the Court of Appeals agreed that no special relationship existed between plaintiff and the people who worked in the medical office, and the office was thus under no duty to act affirmatively to ensure that Dr. O’Connor was properly served with process. According to Steele, the deputy asked her if she was the office manager and handed her the papers, but she did not know what they were “until after she had them.” She did not discuss the papers with the deputy and “the two did not discuss whether or not she was authorized to accept process on Dr. O’Connor’s behalf.” The Court ruled that Steele’s actions here were nonfeasance, not misfeasance, and so without a special relationship, the duty element of plaintiff’s claim failed. The Court noted that “Ms. Steele’s and Dr. Pearson’s passive acceptance of unidentified documents delivered to the office’s front desk is not enough to conclude Defendants assumed a duty of reasonable care.” Summary judgment was thus affirmed.

The responsibility for ensuring that defendants are properly served rests on a plaintiff, and this case is a reminder that it is difficult to hold others accountable for a failure to achieve service of process.

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