Where a GTLA case involves both governmental and non-governmental defendants and a party demands a jury trial, the entire case is to be heard by the jury.
In Vandyke v. Cheek, No. M2022-00938-COA-R10-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. May 3, 2023), plaintiff filed suit after a car accident caused in part by a malfunctioning traffic light. Defendants in the case included Montgomery County and other governmental entities as well as the other driver, a non-governmental entity. Plaintiff requested a jury trial, and the governmental entities asked for the case to be severed so that the claims against the governmental entities would be heard in a bench trial. The trial court granted the motion, but in this extraordinary appeal, the Court of Appeals reversed the order severing the claims and remanded the case to be heard by a jury as a whole.
Before 1994, the GTLA provided that cases against governmental entities were to be heard “without the intervention of a jury,” and it provided that jury demands for claims against non-governmental entities could be severed and heard separately from claims against governmental parties. In 1994, however, the GTLA was amended.
Under the current version of the GTLA, Tenn. Code Ann. §29-20-307 provides that “circuit courts shall have exclusive jurisdiction over” GTLA cases and “shall hear and decide such suits without the intervention of a jury, except as provided in § 29-20-313(b).” Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-20-313(b) provides that where there are multiple defendants in a GTLA case, and at least one is a governmental entity and at least one is not a governmental entity, “the case shall be heard and decided by a jury upon the demand of any party.”
Based on this current version of the GTLA, the Court explained:
Clearly, the pre-1994 version of section 29-20-307 provided that governmental entities were to be tried “without the intervention of a jury,” and the pre-1994 version of section 29-20-313(b) required the court to “sever the trial” of the governmental entities because, under section 29-20-307, the plaintiff was not entitled to “demand a jury trial” of those governmental entities. However, as set out in context above, the post-1994 iterations of the relevant GTLA statutes clearly negate the need for severance. The current version of section 29-20-313(b) states that “the case shall be heard and decided by a jury upon the demand of any party.” (Emphasis added). The legislature included no limiting language to indicate an intent that any part of the case should be heard by the court as opposed to the jury. Rather, the legislature stated that the “case” shall be heard by the jury; we read this to mean the entire case against all parties.
In addition to the plain language of the statute, the Court pointed out that the legislative history of the 1994 amendments also supported this construction. Accordingly, the Court held that “section 29-20-313(b) clearly provides that, where non-governmental and governmental entities are involved, the entire case will be tried to a jury, when a jury trial is demanded.” The trial court was reversed, and the case was remanded for trial by jury.
Although the current language of the GTLA is fairly clear on this issue, this is an important case in that it clarifies that a GTLA case that includes non-governmental defendants can be heard by a jury. It is surprising it took almost two decades for this issue to be addressed by an appellate court.
This opinion was released one month after oral arguments in this case.