Here is the beginning of my “Day on Torts” column for the Tennessee Bar Journal on what a plaintiff should do if the tortfeasor dies before suit is filed.  Click on the link to read the full text of the article.

Your new client thought she could avoid hiring a lawyer and instead work out on her own a settlement with the insurance claims representative for the other driver. The dance lasted 10 months. “Wait until the end of medical treatment.” “Sign these forms.” “Send me your medical bills.” “I need your EOB forms.” “Your employer needs to confirm in writing your lost wages.” And so on.

She (finally) has concerns about whether she is going to be treated fairly and hires you as her lawyer. You have two months to investigate and evaluate the case, and to file a lawsuit. Your chance to settle the case pre-suit is long gone.

 

Where an ROTC instructor pulled a stool from beneath a student, his actions were not within the scope of his employment and immunity was not removed under the GTLA.

In O’Brian v. Rutherford County Board of Education, No. M2017-00527-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. July 31, 2018), plaintiff was a sophomore in high school and participant in the ROTC program. While at an ROTC competition, the instructor asked his group of students to sit on a log. The instructor’s stool, which he had brought from home, was next to the log. Plaintiff sat on the stool to tie her shoes. The instructor asked her to move several times, to which she responded that she was almost finished. After saying plaintiff’s name for a third time and plaintiff not moving, the instructor pulled the stool out from underneath plaintiff, and she fell, injuring her back.

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Tennessee law “grants counties that allow inmates to work on road details and other projects immunity from liability for injuries,” and that immunity overrides provisions of the GTLA.

In Trojan v. Wayne County, Tennessee, No. M2017-00415-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. July 23, 2018), plaintiff was an inmate in Wayne County jail and was working on a bridge as part of an inmate work program. While working, he spilled concrete onto his boots and feet and suffered chemical burns, which resulted in scarring. He brought suit against the county for negligence, arguing that immunity was removed under the GTLA. The trial court granted defendant county’s motion to dismiss, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

Tenn. Code Ann. § 41-2-123(d)(2) states that, except in very specific circumstances, government entities shall not “be liable to any prisoner or prisoner’s family for death or injuries received while on a work detail, other than for medical treatment for the injury during the period of the prisoner’s confinement.” Plaintiff argued that this section was limited to prisoners described in another part of the statute, a group into which he did not fall, but the Court of Appeals disagreed.

When a defendant files a motion “requesting the court to compel the plaintiff or his counsel to provide the court with a copy of the expert’s signed written statement that was relied upon in executing the certificate of good faith” pursuant to Tenn. Code Ann. Section 29-26-122 of the HCLA, that motion does not have to be raised as part of a motion for summary judgment or motion for discretionary costs.

In Jones v. Hargreaves, No. M2017-01271-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. July 23, 2018), plaintiff filed an HCLA complaint accompanied by a certificate of good faith signed by his counsel. Defendant doctor filed a motion for summary judgment, supported by his own affidavit. Plaintiff never responded to the motion for summary judgment, and plaintiff’s counsel moved to withdraw before the hearing. The motion was eventually granted, with plaintiff never filing a response.

After summary judgment, defendant “filed a motion pursuant to section 29-26-122(d)(2) to compel [plaintiff] to produce the expert’s signed written statement relied upon in executing the certificate of good faith filed with the complaint and requesting the court to determine if [plaintiff’s] attorneys complied with [the statute] in executing and filing the certificate of good faith.” Plaintiff’s former counsel responded to this motion, asserting that he did comply with the statute but that he “decided not to pursue the case due to the lack of a permanent injury and the expense of pursuing this matter with lack of significant damages.”

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Where a pipe could be altered but the expense to do so would be “considerable” and there were no indications that any alterations were intended, a nuisance claim based on the pipe was considered to be a permanent nuisance, meaning that the statute of limitations was three years “from the time of the creation of the nuisance.” In addition, where a trespass claim involved complicated questions regarding water runoff and flow patterns and plaintiffs did not have a competent expert witness to testify as to causation, summary judgment for the defendant was appropriate.

In Ray v. Neff, No. M2016-02217-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. July 20, 2018), plaintiffs filed a claim for nuisance and trespass related to their adjacent neighbors’ installation of a pipe on their property. Plaintiffs claimed that the pipe was first placed in 2008, and that after extensive flooding in 2010, “changes to the pipe…modified the course of a creek” and caused water to flow directly towards their home, causing property damage.

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Where plaintiffs had attempted to communicate with a second expert and eventually obtained an affidavit from him, the Court of Appeals ruled that the trial court should have granted plaintiffs’ motion to alter or amend.

In Harmon v. Hickman Community Healthcare Services, Inc., No. M2016-02374-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. June 29, 2018), plaintiffs filed an HCLA claim after decedent died shortly after being incarcerated at the Hickman County jail. Decedent was arrested at a traffic stop and found to be in possession of drugs. She “started experiencing symptoms of narcotic withdrawals” and requested medical treatment. She was treated at the jail by Nurse Cloud, was later found unresponsive in her cell, and died the next day. Nurse Cloud was an employee of defendant, and the jail had a contract with defendant for medical care.

Both plaintiffs and defendant filed motions for summary judgment in this case. The trial court ultimately granted defendant’s motion for summary judgment based on plaintiffs’ inability to prove causation. The trial court ruled that the expert relied upon by plaintiff was not competent to give causation testimony under Tennessee law, and that there was thus no genuine issue of material fact. One month after this ruling, plaintiffs submitted a Motion to Revise (which the trial court and Court of Appeals determined was actually a Rule 59 Motion to Alter or Amend), supported by declarations from a new expert witness. The trial court denied the motion, but the Court of Appeals reversed this ruling.

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Failure to comply with HCLA pre-suit notice requirements will not be excused due to local practice, and a final order dismissing defendants from a suit that is not appealed cannot later be revised by the trial court through a decision in a second suit.

In Smith v. Wellmont Health System, No. E2017-00850-COA-R9-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. July 9, 2018), plaintiff filed an HCLA claim against several defendants, all of whom filed motions to dismiss based on an inadequate HIPAA authorization in the pre-suit notice. The trial court granted three defendants’ joint motion to dismiss and entered a dismissal order, from which plaintiff did not appeal. Before the motions from the other defendants were decided, plaintiff voluntarily nonsuited those claims.

Plaintiff subsequently sent a second pre-suit notice to all original defendants and filed a second suit naming all of them, including the three dismissed from the original suit. All defendants filed motions to dismiss in this case as well, and the trial court denied them all. It ruled that its first dismissal order was incorrect because “plaintiff’s first complaint was not time-barred because…plaintiff provided proper pre-suit notice.” This interlocutory appeal followed.

The issues in this case were identical to those in Roberts v. Wellmont Health System, No. 2017-00845-COA-R9-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. July 5, 2018), a decision that came out just four days before this one. In both cases, plaintiff provided a HIPAA authorization that left blanks for which parties could disclose protected health information, to whom disclosures could be made, and the expiration date. Here, the Court noted that plaintiff expressly stated in a letter accompanying the HIPAA form that defendants “could use the authorizations to get the records of the other Defendants and he invited them to contact him if they had any questions.” In this case, like in Roberts, the plaintiff and trial court relied on the fact that providing blank forms was the local practice to deem the forms sufficient.

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A HIPAA authorization form that leaves blanks for which parties may make disclosures and to whom disclosures can be made is most likely insufficient to meet the statutory requirements of the HCLA, even if it complies with the local practice.

In Roberts v. Wellmont Health System, No. 2017-00845-COA-R9-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. July 5, 2018), plaintiff sent defendants a pre-suit notice and then filed an HCLA complaint. When defendants filed motions to dismiss in the first matter, plaintiff voluntarily dismissed the case, then subsequently sent new pre-suit notices and filed a second complaint. Defendants filed motions to dismiss, arguing that the first pre-suit notice was deficient due to an incomplete HIPAA authorization, that plaintiff was thus not entitled to the 120-day extension of the statute of limitations which would mean that the first suit was filed outside the statute of limitations, and that the second suit was therefore time-barred.

When sending the first pre-suit notice, plaintiff included a HIPAA authorization that left blank the spaces for (1) the persons authorized to disclose protected health information and (2) the persons to whom disclosure could be made. The form also failed to state an expiration date.

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Where there were facts in dispute about whether a warehouse warned its workers about independent contractors working and using extension cords in the facility, summary judgment in a premises liability case was inappropriate.

In Miranda v. CSC Sugar, LLC, No. W2017-01986-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. July 5, 2018), plaintiff was a construction worker who was working at defendant’s warehouse as a contractor. Plaintiff and his brother were working on scaffolding and using an electric screw gun, which he plugged in with a one-hundred-foot extension cord to an outlet in a different part of the facility. The cord ran across a doorway at the warehouse, and on the third day that plaintiff was working, one of defendant’s employees drove a forklift in reverse across the cord, which entangled the cord and pulled on the scaffolding, causing plaintiff to fall and injure himself.

Plaintiff filed this premises liability suit against defendant, and the trial court granted defendant’s motion for summary judgment. The trial court ruled that defendant “had no duty to warn [plaintiff] of the allegedly dangerous condition which [plaintiff] or his co-employee created and knew about.” The Court of Appeals reversed this ruling.

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Where a school custodian had placed wet floor signs on a small area of one side of a hallway but mopped the entire hallway, the trial court’s finding that the school was liable to a teacher who slipped and fell outside her classroom was affirmed on appeal.

In Robertson v. Clarksville-Montgomery County School System, No. M2017-02492-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. June 28, 2018), plaintiff was a teacher at defendant school. Plaintiff filed suit after she injured herself when she left her classroom to attend a staff meeting and almost immediately slipped on the wet floor in the hall. According to plaintiff, there were two wet floor signs on the opposite side of the hallway in close proximity to one another, but she did not see them before falling. Plaintiff further asserted that even if she had seen them, she would have believed that they indicated that the area between the signs was wet, not the entire hallway.

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