Professional negligence jury verdict affirmed.

Where the jury apparently credited plaintiff’s expert and found that defendant engineering firm was liable for professional negligence related to a large park and marina project, the jury verdict for defendant was affirmed.

In TMS Contracting, LLC v. SmithGroup JJR, Inc., No. M2020-01028-COA-R3-CV, 2022 WL 4112415 (Tenn. Ct. App. Sept. 9, 2022), plaintiff was the general contractor on a park and marina project, and it filed this professional negligence claim against defendant engineering firm related to multiple issues with the project. The case was tried in front of a jury, and during the trial only plaintiff presented testimony from an expert. Rather than hiring an expert, defendant countered plaintiff’s evidence primarily with testimony from its project manager.

The jury ultimately found that defendant was liable for professional negligence and awarded damages to plaintiff. In this appeal, defendant raised three issues: 1) whether the jury verdict was “irreconcilably inconsistent,” 2) whether plaintiff’s expert was qualified to testify as an expert, and 3) whether there was material evidence to support the verdict.

The Court of Appeals first considered whether the jury verdict was “irreconcilably inconsistent,” as verdicts that are “inconsistent and irreconcilable” must be reversed and remanded for new trial. (internal citation omitted). Defendant argued that the jury erred because it responded on the verdict form that plaintiff was not “at fault” with respect to any of the claims, but on a subsequent question it “attributed small percentages of fault to [plaintiff] on each claim.” Further, the jury failed to award any damages to plaintiff on one particular claim. Noting that it must “construe the verdict in a manner that upholds the jury’s findings if at all possible,” the Court ruled that the verdict was not irreconcilable, explaining:

The jury’s conflicting findings on fault may be reconciled using ordinary principles of comparative fault. The jury plainly intended to rule in [plaintiff]’s favor. It found that [defendant] breached the standard of care with respect to each claim. And it found that [plaintiff] was less than 50% at fault with respect to each claim. Under Tennessee’s system of comparative fault, a plaintiff who is less than fifty percent at fault may recover damages in an amount reduced by the percentage of fault assigned to the plaintiff.

(internal citations and quotation omitted). The Court also reconciled the failure to award damages on one particular claim, reasoning that the delay caused by that issue was included in the damages for another claim, and that awarding delay damages on both claims would have resulted in double recovery.

Defendant next challenged the qualifications of plaintiff’s expert witness. The expert was an architect with over fifty years of experience, but defendant argued that “because he was not trained as an engineer and his engineering experience was woefully out-of-date,” he should not have been allowed to testify about engineering standards. The Court pointed out that the expert admitted that he had not used his engineering skills in more than 20 years, that he did not have a degree in engineering (though he had taken engineering courses), and that he “could not explain modern engineering software[.]” Nonetheless, the Court ruled that it was not an abuse of discretion to allow the expert to testify, as he was “knowledgeable on the relevant topics,” and the Court stated that the objections raised by defendant went “to the weight of [defendant’s] testimony, not his admissibility.”

Finally, defendant argued that there was not material evidence to support the jury finding for plaintiff on each claim of professional negligence. Material evidence is a low standard to meet, and the Court of Appeals found material evidence in the testimony offered by plaintiff and plaintiff’s expert to support each claim, including the claim for damages caused by the construction delay.

Having ruled that the verdict was not irreconcilable, that admission of the expert was not an abuse of discretion, and that there was material evidence to support the jury verdict, the verdict was affirmed.

This opinion was released 11 months after oral arguments in this case.

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