Certain claims for personal injury, wrongful death and property damage may be asserted against the State of Tennessee, but different rules apply and there are plenty of pitfalls for those unfamiliar with the law or procedures of litigating in the Claims Commission.  One such pitfall arise at the intersection of the law of claims against the State and the law of comparative fault.

In Moreno v. City of Clarksville[1]  plaintiff filed a claim against the State of Tennessee after a tree on state law fell on his vehicle.  When the claim was not settled, he timely filed a formal complaint with the Claims Commission.  The State of Tennessee then blamed the City of Clarksville for causing the damage and, within the 90-day period provided by §20-1-119 plaintiff sued the City of Clarksville under the Governmental Tort Liability Act in state court.  As permitted by statute,[2] the Claims Commission action was transferred to the Circuit Court for Montgomery County and consolidated with the action pending against the City of Clarksville. [3]

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Where a plaintiff was injured while working on a construction site owned by defendant, but the trial court ruled that plaintiff was actually an employee of an independent contractor retained by defendant, the Court of Appeals affirmed a jury verdict finding defendant only 10% at fault for plaintiff’s injuries.

In Helton v. Lawson, No. E2018-2119-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Dec. 18, 2019), Defendant was having a house built on a piece of property that he owned, and he had retained “local handyman Gene Housewright” to help. Housewright was then contacted by plaintiff, who was looking for a job, and Housewright told him he needed laborers for defendant’s house project. On November 6, 2012, Housewright and another worker had assembled bracing to be used when working on the house. Later than day, plaintiff was standing on the bracing and was injured when the bracing pulled loose from the house, causing him to fall.

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The number of trials in Tennessee state court continued to decline in 2019, although jury trials in Circuit Court ticked up slightly.

What follows is the number of jury and non-jury trials in Tennessee state courts for the indicated fiscal years (July 1 – June 30):

Year   Chancery Non-Jury     Chancery Jury            Circuit Non-Jury                 Circuit Jury              Total

Where an independent contractor working at a convenience store had been told that the store had been robbed before, neither the landlord nor the operator of the store were liable when he was injured in an armed robbery.

In Priestas v. Kia Properties, LLC, NO. W.2019-00728-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Dec. 18, 2019), plaintiff worked as an independent contractor for a convenience store run by one defendant, which was in a property owned by the other defendant. Plaintiff was hired when he stopped at the store one night upon seeing multiple police cars there, and was told there had just been a robbery. Plaintiff was hired to work “a few hours a day to perform tasks such as stocking the store’s coolers and cleaning up inside and outside the store.” The owner told plaintiff that the store “had been burglarized/robbed on several prior occasions,” and plaintiff informed the owner that he would carry a concealed firearm when working. Approximately two months after he began working, plaintiff was shot during a robbery. Plaintiff was attempting to wrestle a gun from an armed robber when the shooting occurred.

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Occasionally, a plaintiff does not learn until after more than one-year after an event that the person who caused plaintiff’s injuries and losses was working in the course and scope of employment at the time of the incident.  How can a plaintiff add the employer as a party defendant and avoid a statute of limitations defense?

First, persuade the lawyer for the individual defendant to allege the fault of the nonparty employer.  The decision in Browder v. Morris, 975 S.W.2d 308 (Tenn. 1998) held that Tenn.Code Ann. Sec. 20-1-119 applied to such an allegation and thus a plaintiff could take advantage of the statute’s 90-day window to add the employer as a party defendant and avoid a statute of limitations defense.

Second, move to amend the complaint to add the employer to the case and argue that suit was timely filed because of application of the discovery rule.  The rule does not just apply to health care liability actions – -the Tennessee Supreme Court extended the discovery rule to “all tort actions predicated on negligence, strict liability, or misrepresentation.” Doe v. Coffee County Bd. of Educ., 852 S.W.2d 899, 904 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1992) (citation omitted).

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Where plaintiffs knew that a Tennessee judgment had to be renewed when it was ten years old, had not spoken with an attorney at the firm who previously represented them, and had not received any bills or communications about a renewal of the judgment, plaintiffs’ legal malpractice claim filed three years after the judgments needed to be renewed was time-barred.

In Rozen v. Wolff Ardis, P.C., No. W2019-00396-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Dec. 17, 2019), plaintiffs had been represented by defendant law firm in a 2003 case. In that case, plaintiffs were awarded judgments against two defendants who stole jewelry from plaintiffs’ business, but because those defendants were sent to prison, the judgments were not collected on at the time. When one of the two defendants filed for bankruptcy in 2006, defendant law firm represented plaintiffs to ensure that the judgment was not discharged. After that representation in 2006, plaintiffs “received a letter from Wolff Ardis stating that ‘this matter is completed’ and requesting that [plaintiffs] pay for the legal services performed for them.”

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A defendant sued within the statute of limitations states in its answer or amended answer that a person not a party to the lawsuit negligently contributed to cause plaintiff’s injuries.  Plaintiff decides to sue the nonparty, and rely on Tenn. Code Ann. §20-1-119 to avoid a statute of limitations defense.

How does a plaintiff add the nonparty as a party defendant?

The answer depends on whether the case is in state court or federal court.   In state court, plaintiff has an absolute right to amend under Tenn. R. Civ. Pro. 15.01.  In relevant part, it provides ” [f]or amendments adding defendants pursuant to Tenn. Code Ann. §20-1-119, however, written consent of the adverse party or leave of court is not required.”

Where a nursing home patient’s daughter executed the admission paperwork and arbitration agreement, but the power of attorney the patient had previously executed in favor of her daughter specifically excluded the power to make health care decisions, the arbitration agreement was not enforceable.

In Jones v. Allenbrooke Nursing and Rehabilitation Center LLC, No. W2019-00448-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Dec. 16, 2019), plaintiff’s mother executed a power of attorney (“POA”) in favor of her daughter in 2007. The POA granted plaintiff power to handle certain property and business transactions, but it specifically stated: “This document does not authorize anyone to make medical or other health care decisions for you.” In 2013, the mother was suffering from dementia and was incompetent, so plaintiff executed nursing home admission documents in connection with having the mother admitted to defendant nursing home. Included in these documents was an arbitration agreement.

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An order awarding sanctions to defendants after plaintiffs sent a letter to healthcare providers allegedly interfering with ex parte interviews between defense counsel and the deceased’s patients former healthcare providers was not appealable as a final order.

In Ibsen v. Summit View of Farragut, LLC, No. E2018-01249-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Dec. 11, 2019), plaintiffs brought an HCLA suit against defendants based on the care provided to a now-deceased patient. Defendants “filed a motion for a qualified protective order allowing them to conduct ex parte interviews with a list of [the deceased’s] treating healthcare providers pursuant to Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-26-121(f).” The trial court granted the motion and informed plaintiffs’ counsel that he could “contact the doctors and explain[] to them that this order is voluntary,” but that he could not “contact them and tell them not to participate” or otherwise “interfere with the Defendants’ rights to conduct these interviews[.]”

Defendants later filed a motion for sanctions against plaintiffs “asserting that six letters sent by plaintiffs’ counsel to [the deceased’s] treating healthcare providers violated the Court’s order by attempting to keep the health care providers from taking part in the interviews.”* The trial court agreed that the letters violated the order, and it entered an order imposing sanctions against plaintiffs, including having to pay costs and expenses for defendants related to preparing for and deposing the providers. “The trial court also ordered plaintiffs’ counsel to send a retraction letter to all of the treating healthcare providers he had contacted…” Plaintiffs then sought to appeal this case under Tenn. R. App. P. 3, but the Court of Appeals determined that there was no basis for appeal under that rule.

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I have been compiling the Tennessee tort reform statutes, and the court decisions interpreting them, for a decade.   I recently released another edition of my book, Compendium on Tort Reform Statutes and Related Case Law, 2008-2019.

The book contain 549 pages of information helpful to tort lawyers.  The best use for the book is this:  when researching an unfamiliar area of Tennessee tort law, go through the Table of Contents and see if a topic listed there is potentially relevant to the issues you are researching.  If so, turn to the relevant pages and to see (a) what new statutes may impact your issue; and (b) what Tennessee decisions have interpreted those statutes.

The book is only $79.00, plus sales taxes, shipping and handling.  You can order it by clicking the link above.