Tennessee statute of limitations is based on gravamen of complaint.

Where plaintiff’s claims against defendant county were based on intentional torts, a one-year statute of limitations applied.

In Anderson v. Lauderdale County, Tennessee, No. W2022-00332-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 21, 2023), plaintiff was pulled over by a sheriff’s deputy employed by defendant county. According to plaintiff, the deputy pointed a gun at plaintiff, chased him and called for backup when plaintiff tried to drive away, eventually tased plaintiff, and made false statements about plaintiff, causing him to be wrongfully charged with multiple crimes. Plaintiff further asserted that “a grand jury returned an indictment against [the deputy].”

Plaintiff filed this complaint against the deputy and defendant county more than one year after the incident, asserting that the county was liable for the deputy’s actions under Tenn. Code Ann. § 8-8-302 and -303. Plaintiff’s initial complaint listed several intentional torts, but his amended complaint removed the referral to any specific torts and instead alleged liability more generally. After plaintiff voluntarily dismissed the deputy, defendant county filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to the statute of limitations, which the trial court granted upon determining that a one-year statute of limitations applied. Dismissal was affirmed on appeal.

Plaintiff brought his claim against the county pursuant to a statute specifically addressing suits filed against cities based on wrongful actions by sheriff’s deputies. (Tenn. Code Ann. § 8-8-302). That statute, however, does not contain a statute of limitations. “When a specific statute of limitations is not clearly set forth in a statute, courts must determine the applicable statute of limitations period by considering the gravamen of the complaint.” (internal citation and quotation omitted). In making this determination, a court should “first consider the legal basis of the claim and then consider the type of injuries for which damages are sought.” (internal citation omitted).

Here, the Court of Appeals noted that plaintiff alleged that he was injured when he was put in fear for his safety and when false representations were made against him. Looking to the allegations in the complaint, the Court ruled that the amended complaint “suggest[ed] claims for intentional torts of assault, false imprisonment, malicious prosecution, abuse of process, and perhaps intentional infliction of emotional distress.” Because these torts are all subject to the one-year personal injury statute of limitations set out in Tenn. Code Ann. § 28-3-104(a)(1), the claims were time-barred.

Plaintiff advanced two arguments as to why the one-year statute of limitations should not apply here. First, he argued that a statute that provides for a six-year statute of limitations for “actions against the sureties of…sheriffs” should apply, but the Court rejected that argument, noting that plaintiff had sued the county, not a surety, and that the claims were not related in any way to a surety agreement. (Tenn. Code Ann. § 28-3-109).

Second, plaintiff asserted that the statute of limitations should be extended to two years pursuant to Tenn. Code Ann. § 28-3-104(a)(2). This statute extends the statute of limitations for certain torts under certain circumstances when criminal charges are filed against the tortfeasor. The Court of Appeals pointed out, however, that in order for this statute to apply, the suit must be filed against the prosecuted party, not against a non-prosecuted person who might also be liable for the conduct. The deputy at issue was indicted for criminal conduct related to this matter, but the suit was against defendant County. Because the suit here was against the county, and the county was not “criminally prosecuted,” the statute did not apply to extend the statute of limitations and dismissal was affirmed.

This opinion was released 4.5 months after oral arguments in this case.

Note:  Chapter 73, Sections 17 of Day on Torts: Leading Cases in Tennessee Tort Law has been updated to include this decision.

Day on Torts: Leading Cases in Tennessee Tort Law contains summaries of leading cases on over 500 topics and citations to more than 1500 additional cases.  The 500,000+ word book  (and two others, Tennessee Law of Civil Trial and Compendium of Tennessee Tort Reform Cases) is available by subscription at www.birddoglaw.com and is continually updated as new decisions and statutes impact Tennessee law.  Click on the link to see the book’s Table of Contents.

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