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Tennessee “Discovery Rule” Applied to Vehicle Crash Case

Where plaintiff knew her husband was killed in a car accident with a firefighter but did not know all the details regarding how the accident occurred, the one-year statute of limitations began to run on the day of the crash and her GTLA suit that was filed more than one year after the accident was untimely.

In Durham v. Estate of Losleben, No. W2019-01623-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Dec. 8, 2020), the plaintiff’s husband was killed when his vehicle collided with one being driven by a firefighter. One year and 21 days after the accident, the plaintiff filed this case under Tennessee’s Governmental Tort Liability Act against the county that employed the firefighter, the fire department, and the estate of the firefighter, who was also killed in the accident.

Defendants moved to dismiss based on the statute of limitations. The trial court granted the motion, finding that the GTLA claim against the governmental entities was time-barred and that the estate was immune under the GTLA. The Court of Appeals affirmed this ruling.

While it was undisputed that the GTLA is subject to a one-year statute of limitations, the plaintiff asserted on appeal that her complaint was timely under the discovery rule. The plaintiff claimed that “she only discovered [the firefighter’s] fault after making efforts to obtain more information regarding how the accident occurred, including obtaining the Tennessee Highway Patrol Report, which she received one month after the accident, and obtaining the Electronic Control Module data from the fire truck, which she received six months after the accident.” Defendants argued, though, that plaintiff had enough information on the date of the accident to begin the running of the limitations period, and the Court of Appeals agreed.

To analyze this case, the Court of Appeals looked at a similar car accident case, Mills v. Booth, 344 S.W.3d 922 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2010). In Mills, plaintiff’s mother and father were both killed in a car accident. The plaintiff was initially told her mother was driving and that she turned in front of the other car, but a few days later found out that her father was driving. She subsequently learned that the accident would not have happened had the other driver not been speeding. Despite being told incorrect information on the date of the accident, the Court of Appeals affirmed a ruling that the statute of limitations in that case began to run on the date of the accident. The Court explained:

[I]n Mills, it was apparently sufficient to trigger the statute of limitations that the daughter knew, on the date of the collision, that her mother died in a two-car accident where the car her mother was in had been broadsided by the car being driven by the defendant. The daughter did not need to have certainty as to who was ultimately at fault for the accident, that the injury constituted a breach of a legal standard, or even who was driving the vehicle her mother was in, for her to have been on notice that she suffered an injury as a result of wrongful conduct, and thus for the statute of limitations to begin running on the date of the accident.

(internal citation omitted).

Based on the reasoning of Mills, the Court concluded that the plaintiff in this case was sufficiently on notice of her cause of action on the date of the accident to begin the limitations period. The Court noted that the plaintiff knew “that her husband had been killed in a two-car collision with a Hardin County fire truck driven by Mr. Losleben, the only other vehicle and party involved.” The Court found that even if the plaintiff did not know the details of the accident until receiving the report and electronic information, this did not change the analysis. The Court stated that “the fact that [plaintiff] may not have been aware of the exact breach of a legal standard that caused injuries, i.e., that Mr. Losleben was speeding, did not brake before impact, and veered into [the husband’s] opposite lane, is simply not sufficient to toll the statute of limitations.” (internal citation omitted).

In addition to the discovery rule, the plaintiff asserted that Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 28-1-110 and 20-5-103(a) operated together to toll the statute of limitations here. Tenn. Code Ann. § 2801-110 applies when a defendant dies and the statute of limitations is tolled during the time between the death and the appointment of a personal representative, not to exceed six months. Plaintiff asserted that her cause of action against the firefighter’s estate would have been tolled under this statute, and that “because Hardin County is vicariously liable for [the firefighter’s] negligence under the GTLA, the cause of action against Hardin County likewise” was tolled, but the Court of Appeals rejected this argument. The Court stated that the plain language of § 28-1-110 clearly “applies to causes of action against personal representatives of decedents, not against county governments.” Here, the estate was immune from suit under the GTLA, and there was “no law to support application of section 28-1-110 to any defendant who is alleged to be vicariously liable for the torts of decedents, much less to a governmental defendant.” (internal citation omitted).

Because the statute of limitations was not tolled by either the discovery rule or the statute cited by the plaintiff, the Court affirmed the ruling that this case was time-barred.

The application of the discovery rule continues to be a fact-dependent exercise.  It must be remembered that the purpose of the discovery rule is to avoid injustice.

Note: This opinion was released two and a half months after oral arguments were heard.

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