The Tennessee Supreme Court recently reversed a Court of Appeals opinion and reinstated a trial court’s refusal to grant a motion to alter or amend. The trial court had granted defendant’s summary judgment motion based on plaintiff’s HCLA expert being unqualified to testify as to causation and plaintiff not obtaining a second expert affidavit until after summary judgment was granted.

In Harmon v. Hickman Community Healthcare Services, Inc., No. M2016-02374-SC-R11-CV (Tenn. Jan. 28, 2020), plaintiff filed an HCLA suit after decedent died while in Hickman County jail. Decedent had been arrested on possession of illegal drugs, and while incarcerated, she began suffering drug withdrawal symptoms. She was treated by an R.N. in the jail’s medical unit then sent back to her cell. Later that night, she was found dead on the floor of her cell.

Plaintiff filed suit and identified a “physician who was board-certified in neurology and psychiatry” as her expert, and defendant filed a motion for summary judgment asserting that plaintiff could not prove causation because her expert was not qualified to testify as to causation under the HCLA. The trial court heard oral arguments on the motion on November 2, 2015, denied a motion for partial summary judgment by plaintiff in January 2016, and finally issued an order granting summary judgment to defendant in April 2016. The trial court “held that Plaintiffs’ sole expert witness on causation…was not competent to provide testimony under Tennessee Code Annotated § 29-26-115.”

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Where plaintiff was injured when he was standing on the water meter box in his yard and the concrete cover unexpectedly moved, and the  governmental water authority had noted that the box needed to be replaced four months before the incident, the Court of Appeals affirmed a finding that the water authority was 100% at fault for plaintiff’s injuries.

In Cox v. Water and Wastewater Treatment Authority of Wilson County, Tennessee, No. M2018-00433-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 31, 2020), plaintiff was scraping ice off his truck and had to stand on the concrete cover on the water meter in his yard. While he was standing on it, the “concrete cover fell into the box beneath it,” causing plaintiff to break a bone in his foot.

Plaintiff filed this GTLA suit alleging that defendant water authority “had actual and/or constructive notice that the water meter box was in an unreasonably dangerous, defective and unsafe condition and that the company failed to alleviate or warn of the danger.” Defendant denied having notice and raised the affirmative defense of comparative fault.

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Sometimes companies that do business or cause harm in Tennessee have not registered to do business in Tennessee or have not appointed a registered agent in the state.  If you want to sue them in a civil action (but not a worker’s compensation action), on whom to you serve the summons and complaint?

For “for profit” corporations, the answer is found in Tenn. Code Ann. Sec. 48-15-104 (b) :

Whenever a domestic or foreign corporation authorized to do business in this state fails to appoint or maintain a registered agent in this state, whenever its registered agent cannot be found with reasonable diligence, whenever a foreign corporation shall transact business or conduct affairs in this state without first procuring a certificate of authority to do so from the secretary of state, or whenever the certificate of authority of a foreign corporation shall have been withdrawn or revoked, then the secretary of state shall be an agent of such corporation upon whom any such process, notice or demand may be served.  (Emphasis added.)

The Tennessee Supreme Court yielded to the Legislature’s decision to impose a cap on the amount of money that can be awarded to people harmed by the carelessness of others.  The law was passed in 2011.  The law requires judges to reduce jury awards for human losses (called “noneconomic damages by the legislation) to $750,000 in most cases.

The 3-2 decision was authored by Chief Justice Bivins.  There was one concurring opinion and two dissents.  Click on the links below to read them.

Majority Opinion by C.J. Bivins

Data has been released that shows the number of Tennessee medical malpractice (now called health care liability actions) filed and disposed of for the year ending June 30, 2019.

A total of 422 claims were filed in our state courts in FY 2019, about the same as the previous year (416).  The courts disposed of 385 cases in FY 2019, compared with 382 the previous year.

Only 27 of the cases went to trial in FY 2019, 17 of which were tried to a jury and 10 of which were non-jury trials.  In FY 2018 there were 18 total trials, 13 of which were jury trials and 5 of which were non-jury trials.

Today we follow up on our previous post about the number of civil trials in Tennessee and we concentrate on the number of trials in Tennessee personal injury, wrongful death and other tort cases. (Health care liability trials are excluded from these numbers.)

In the fiscal year ending June 30, 2019, there were 140 jury trials and 150 non-jury trials in Tennessee tort cases.  Thus, there were a total of 290 such trials.  Plaintiffs “won” 112 of those cases or, in other words, 38.6% of the time the plaintiff received a judgment in his or her favor.  (Whether this is truly a victory for the plaintiff depends on whether there was a pre-trial offer and the amount of that offer when compared with the judgment amount.)  The available data does not tell us the percentage of “wins” in jury cases or in non-jury cases but only the total number of judgments entered for the plaintiff in both types of cases.

Compare that for the prior year (ending June 30, 2018), when there were  130 jury trials and 207 non-jury trials.  Therefore, the total number of tort trials that year was 337.  Therefore, for the first time in recent memory, the number of jury trials actually increased slightly  (130 to 140) while the number of non-jury trials decreased substantially (207 to 150).  In FY 2018 a judgment was entered for the plaintiff in only 98 cases, or 29.1% of all cases tried.

Where the trial court granted summary judgment on two grounds in a Tennessee medical malpractice case, but plaintiff only raised one of the grounds in her appeal, summary judgment was affirmed.

In Lovelace v. Baptist Memorial Hospital-Memphis, No. W2019-00453-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 16, 2020), plaintiff filed an HCLA suit after her husband died following treatment at defendant hospital. During his time at the hospital being treated for pneumonia, he developed seven pressure ulcers on his body, and though he was transferred to a different facility, he passed away.

Plaintiff filed this health care liability suit and attached the affidavit of her expert witness, Brenda Moore, who was a “registered nurse with a doctorate of nursing practice.” Nurse Moore was eventually deposed, after which defendant filed a motion for summary judgment. The trial court granted summary judgment to defendant on two grounds: 1) that plaintiff’s identified expert did not provide sufficient causation testimony, and 2) that Nurse Moore was not competent to testify under Tennessee’s HCLA statutes.

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Where a tenant brought a premises liability claim against a landlord based on a loose piece of wood at the top of stairs inside an apartment, but the evidence showed that the tenant and landlord walked through the apartment before the lease began and neither noticed the allegedly dangerous condition and that plaintiff himself lived in the apartment for a month and a half without becoming aware of the loose wood, summary judgment for the landlord was affirmed.

In Fisher v. Villages at Henley Station, LLC, No. M2018-01990-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 24, 2020), plaintiff rented a townhome from defendants. The townhome had been built about eight months before the lease began, and plaintiff was the first resident. Before the lease was signed, plaintiff did a walkthrough of the townhouse with the property manager, and neither of them noticed a problem with the stairs. Plaintiff lived in the home for approximately one and a half months, using the stairs daily with no problem, but then suffered a fall that he alleged was caused by a plank of wood not properly connected at the top of the stairs. The evidence showed that plaintiff had not noticed the issue before his fall and that no other tenants had experienced such an issue.

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Motions to amend a complaint or answer are a routine part of trial practice in Tennessee state court.

Here is a recent statement on the law of motions to amend:

Trial courts have broad authority to decide motions to amend pleadings and will not be reversed absent an abuse of discretion. Hawkins v. Hart, 86 S.W.3d 522, 532 (Tenn.Ct.App.2001). Under the abuse of discretion standard, an appellate court cannot substitute its judgment for that of the trial court. Williams v. Baptist Mem’l Hosp., 193 S.W.3d 545, 551 (Tenn.2006). Numerous factors guide a trial court’s discretionary decision whether to allow a late-filed amendment. Some of these include undue delay, bad faith by the moving party, repeated failure to cure deficiencies by previous amendments and futility of the amendments. Merriman v. Smith, 599 S.W.2d 548, 559 (Tenn.Ct.App.1979).

Where a man being arrested was shot and killed after he went out of his home and raised a gun towards a police officer, the Court of Appeals affirmed dismissal of a GTLA tort suit, finding that the police department was immune from suit and that the suit was barred by the decedent’s comparative fault.

In Acree v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, No. M2019-00056-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Dec. 27, 2019), decedent failed to appear for an aggravated criminal trespass court hearing, which resulted in a felony warrant being issued. Officers retrieved the warrant the next day, and the warrant stated that “subject may exhibit paranoia and feel that officers are following him.” The officer serving the warrant also noted that “Decedent had been arrested three times in the past six months without incident.” Four officers proceeded to decedent’s home, and two went to the front door and two to the back door. One officer knocked and identified himself, and when there was no answer, he saw through a hole in the door that decedent was not moving. The officer knocked again and saw decedent move away from the front of the house, so he called over the radio that decedent was walking towards the back door. Decedent then “abruptly open[ed] the back door and raise[d] a firearm at” one officer. The officer shot once, striking and killing decedent.

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