No Evidence From Plaintiffs Leads to Summary Judgment for Defendant

Where a child was injured at school but her parents had no evidence that the school had breached a duty of care or that an action by a school employee caused the injury, summary judgment was affirmed.

In Webster v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, Tennessee, No. M2018-00106-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 11, 2019), plaintiffs were the parents of a six-year-old girl with autism. While at kindergarten, the girl injured her arm, and plaintiffs brought a negligence suit under the GTLA. Plaintiffs amended their complaint more than once, and each version alleged that the injury was caused by a lack of appropriate care in the classroom. More than two years after filing suit and “after all discovery had been completed,” plaintiffs filed a motion to amend their complaint again, this time seeking to add “allegations that [the child’s] injuries occurred on the playground and that Metro was negligent in allowing her on the playground and in failing to provide appropriate supervision.” The trial court denied the motion to amend and then granted defendant’s motion for summary judgment, finding that plaintiffs could not “demonstrate that an employee of the Metropolitan Government breached a duty of care owed to plaintiffs,” and that “plaintiffs failed to prove cause in fact or proximate cause.” The Court of Appeals affirmed.

The Court of Appeals first affirmed the denial of plaintiffs’ motion to amend after discovery was finished. The Court pointed out that the theory this amended complaint sought to add—that the girl was injured on the playground—had been known to plaintiffs since the teacher was deposed more than two years before the motion to amend was filed, and that the assertion that the injury happened on the playground also came up in defendant’s discovery responses. Plaintiffs had already amended their complaint “several times during the proceedings” and had not chosen to include this theory in any previous versions of the complaint. The Court of Appeals agreed that plaintiffs here had “exhibited undue delay in seeking to amend their complaint” to reflect this theory, and that allowing this amendment when discovery was complete and a summary judgment motion was pending would have been prejudicial to defendant.

Next, the Court denied plaintiffs’ argument that summary judgment should not have been granted due to their “credibility objection” to the teacher’s affidavit. In support of summary judgment, defendant submitted the teacher’s affidavit, wherein she stated that she reminded the students of the playground rules on the day in question, that they had been to the playground many times, and that she saw the child go down the slide on her side but did not have time to stop or correct her. Plaintiff argued that this affidavit should be found to not be credible because the affidavit stated that the child “did not have a problem following the rules regarding the playground,” yet the child’s IEP said that one of her goals was “increased compliance in the school environment with following directives…and follow safety rules…” The Court of Appeals, like the trial court, found that there was “no inherent contradiction between [the teacher’s] statement and the IEP goal,” as the statement in the affidavit “describe[d] her observations regarding [the child’s] behavior on the playground over the four-month period when [the child] was in her class,” while the “IEP sets overall goals for [the child] in order to assist her in receiving an appropriate education.” The Court ruled that there was “no merit to the credibility issues raised by plaintiffs” here.

Finally, plaintiffs argued that the trial court failed to state the legal grounds for summary judgment in compliance with Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56.04. The Court quickly rejected this assertion, pointing out that the trial court stated that “Plaintiffs cannot demonstrate that an employee of [defendant] breached a duty of care owed to Plaintiffs,” and that plaintiffs had “not presented any evidence that some action or inaction in the classroom on the part of a Metro employee was the cause in fact or proximate cause of the injury.” Summary judgment for defendant was thus affirmed.

As we have seen before, plaintiffs here simply did not have the evidence to survive defendant’s motion for summary judgment. As plaintiffs are preparing their cases, its important to keep the summary judgment standard in mind and be prepared to present evidence to defeat such a motion.