Service of process on hospital employee insufficient.

When a process server gave the HCLA summons and complaint to a hospital employee, insufficient service resulted in dismissal of the case.

In Roberts v. Hinkle, No. W2022-01714-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. April 9, 2024), plaintiff filed an HCLA suit against defendant doctor related to an allegedly negligent surgery. Defendant raised the affirmative defense of insufficient service of process in his answer. Later, he filed a motion to dismiss based on insufficient service of process and the statute of limitations. The trial court granted the motion, dismissing the case, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 4.04 lays out the proper process for service of a lawsuit in Tennessee. “Although personal service of process is the preferred method of service upon an individual defendant, service may also be had upon an agent authorized by appointment or by law to receive service on behalf of the defendant.” (internal citation and quotation omitted).

Here, the process server traveled to the hospital where defendant worked. Desk workers stated that defendant was not there. Instead, Dangelis Paden accepted the summons and complaint.

In his deposition, Mr. Paden stated that he served as Director of Operations for a physician’s group. He testified that he had accepted service on behalf of other physicians before, but never for a doctor in defendant’s practice group. While defendant had not specifically stated that Mr. Paden was not his agent before this incident, he never gave Mr. Paden authority to accept process. Mr. Paden stated that “his understanding that he could accept service did not come from a conversation that he had with [defendant].” In addition, during the process server’s deposition he testified that Mr. Paden never stated that he had been appointed as an agent to accept process by defendant.

Authority to accept service as an agent may be express or implied. Implied authority “must be predicated on some act or acquiescence of the principal, rather than on the actions of the agent.” (internal citation omitted). Based on the facts here, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s finding of insufficient service of process. Plaintiff failed to show that Mr. Paden had actual or implied authority to accept service for defendant. Plaintiff presented no evidence that defendant implied Dr. Paden could act on his behalf, and defendant contested proper service in his first filing with the trial court.

Because no proper service occurred, the filing of this complaint failed to toll the statute of limitations for plaintiff’s HCLA claim. The Court of Appeals accordingly affirmed dismissal.

In an office or hospital setting, insufficient service of process can trip up unaware litigants. Plaintiffs must navigate this issue carefully to avoid dismissal later in the litigation.

The Court of Appeals released this opinion 4.5 months after oral arguments in this case.


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