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coal mineFor most Americans, the risk of injuries on a day-to-day basis is very low, with little worry that one will be habitually exposed to dangers such as a reckless driver, a hole in the ground, or an icy porch. For some, though, there are inherent risks in the work they do every day, arising from exposure to dangerous environmental conditions and elements. The risk of a Tennessee work injury is particularly high for people who work in the coal mining industry, which, for many years, has been proven to lead to serious health issues. In order to address these known complications, Congress passed the Black Lung Benefits Act, which entitles certain coal miners to benefits if they become physically disabled as a result of their coal mining work. A recent case before the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals looked at what is required in order to qualify for these benefits.

In this administrative appeal case, R.D. filed a claim for black lung benefits after he was rendered fully disabled due to black lung disease and a lifetime spent working in the coal mines. During the pendency of his claims, he passed away, and his wife brought a claim for survivor’s benefits. R.D.’s claim was granted by the administrative law judge who heard the case and was appealed by the defense insurer, who requested a full hearing. After the full hearing, R.D.’s claim was again granted. The insurer appealed again to the administrative board, which also affirmed the grant of benefits. Finally, the insurer appealed to the Sixth Circuit.

Under the Black Lung Benefits Act, a claimant can qualify for benefits if he or she shows that (1) he or she is a miner (2) who suffers from black lung disease (3) arising out of coal mining employment (4) if it contributed to a partial or total disability. If a claimant shows that he or she worked in a coal mine for at least 15 years, and the work was in an underground mine or conditions substantially similar to an underground mine, there is a rebuttable presumption that the miner was disabled, or killed, by black lung disease. An employer or insurer may rebut the presumption by showing that the miner did not have black lung disease, or that any respiratory illness suffered by the miner did not arise from coal mine employment.

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piece of paperWhen initiating a lawsuit, plaintiffs have a wide variety of procedural requirements that they have to follow in order to ensure that their lawsuit is brought in a timely fashion, and the defendants receive adequate notice of the lawsuit. One of these requirements is that the plaintiff must ensure that the defendant is served with a copy of the complaint that was filed and a summons so that the defendant knows to respond to the plaintiff’s allegations.  Plaintiffs can utilize a variety of means for having a defendant served, including personally serving the defendant, using a process server company to finalize service, or having the local Sheriff’s department conduct service. No matter which method is used, the plaintiff bears the burden of ensuring that service has occurred and that proof of service has been filed with the court. When service is improper or does not occur, a lawsuit may be tossed out unless the plaintiff can provide a good excuse for the error.

In a recent Tennessee motorcycle accident case, the court looked at circumstances in which the plaintiff attempted service, but the service was never actually finalized. In that case, J.E. delivered a copy of his complaint and summons to the local Sheriff’s office for service. He also sent a courtesy copy to the defendant, P.H.’s insurer, and J.E. and the insurer had ongoing discussions about the resolution of the case. After some time had passed, J.E. realized that he had never received proof of service of the complaint on P.H. and reached out to the Sheriff’s office to inquire. The Sheriff’s office could not confirm if they had served the complaint and requested more time to look into it.

The Sheriff’s office subsequently confirmed that they had not served the complaint because they believed that it had been lost within their office. The explained that J.E. could serve a second alias complaint and summons on P.H., but first the Sheriff’s office needed to confirm in writing that the original versions were lost. Several weeks passed, and J.E. did not receive this written confirmation. Eventually, he reached back out to the Sheriff’s office, and they confirmed that the originals had been lost, and service of alias documents would be appropriate. By this time, the deadline for service had passed, and P.H. moved to dismiss the case.

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escada-1568954-225x300Under Tennessee law, summary judgment is a ruling that is reserved only for those cases where there are no disputes of material fact, and no way for the plaintiff or defendant to succeed in light of the facts that have been presented. Because the standard is so high, summary judgment is only rarely granted, and most cases are left for the jury to decide. Sometimes, however, courts may incorrectly read the facts, and believe that there is less dispute than there really is. When this happens, summary judgment can be granted inappropriately, as in a recent premises liability case.

In this case, A.S. sued S.S. for injuries that she incurred while catering an event at S.S.’s home. As part of the event, the caterers were required to use a back entrance and set of steps when coming in and out of the home. A.S. went up and down these steps several times over the course of the evening, in the light, without issue. However, at the end of the night, she descended the steps in the dark holding onto a railing. A.S. could not see the railing and did not notice that it had ended. As she leaned forward to continue to grab onto it, she fell forward and down the stairs, severely injuring herself. A.S. filed claims against S.S. alleging that S.S. had been negligent in failing to properly light the stairs and fix the guardrail. In response, S.S. initially argued that the stairs had been lit and that the area was not dangerous when A.S. descended.

Later on, after discovery was completed, S.S. moved for summary judgment and argued that, in fact, the lights had been off and the time of the accident and that A.S. was negligent for failing to turn them on before she descended the steps. The trial court agreed and granted the summary judgment motion. A.S. appealed.

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One of the central tenants of being a litigant is that you have a duty to preserve any evidence that you know may be relevant to the litigation. Once it is reasonably foreseeable that litigation may occur, a party must make all reasonable efforts to “hold” important evidence and present it from being disposed of. This means that parties may be required to maintain all their emails, back up documents, and preserve any relevant voicemails. The duty to preserve applies equally to physical evidence that needs to be maintained and should not be destroyed, as illustrated in a recent case before the Tennessee Court of Appeals.

In this truck accident case, J.G. and E.G. were injured after an accident involving their tractor and a trailer. On the day the accident occurred, J.G. was using his tractor to haul a trailer that belonged to R&J Express, LLC. According to the plaintiffs, the tandem axle on the trailer came loose while they were driving on the highway and the trailer quickly lost control. It eventually overturned, causing the tractor to overturn as well, and leading to both plaintiff’s injuries. Shortly thereafter, J.G. and E.G. retained counsel, and the counsel sent a litigation hold letter out to R&J instructing them to preserve the trailer at issue. Four days later, J.G. signed over the title of the tractor to his insurer, which had paid out for the accident, and the tractor was sold for scraps.

Several months later, J.G. and E.G. filed their lawsuit and R&J promptly responded. R&J then filed a motion for sanctions based on the spoliation of evidence. R&J argued that J.G. and E.G. knowingly failed to preserve evidence when they signed over title to the tractor after retaining legal counsel. R&J stated that because there were no witnesses to the accident, their defense would have to rely primarily on showing that some other technical error caused the accident. To the extent that the technical error came from the tractor, R&J were severely prejudiced as they had no ability to examine the tractor and determine any defects.

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ruinsMany Tennessee premises liability claims revolve around determining who is responsible for an accident and who should pay. In some instances, however, liability is not contested. Instead, the parties must fight with insurers about the extent of the related damage and what must be covered.

In this recent insurance appeal, Jefferson County Schools sued Travelers Indemnity Company to provide full coverage of all of the damages related to a recent building collapse. One of the school district’s high school buildings collapsed during a rainstorm. After reviewing the damage, the Tennessee State Fire Marshal’s Office directed the School District to repair the collapsed building and to ensure that all repairs were taken to prevent a future collapse.

Travelers did not contest its obligation to pay for the repairs on the collapsed portion of the building, nor did it disagree with its obligation to pay for some of the repairs made to the existing uncollapsed building in order to prevent future collapses. Indeed, the company paid almost $900,000 in repairs to the school district. However, Travelers took issue with the final recommendation from the engineer whom the school district hired, which advised the school district to provide additional reinforcement to the walls at the school. Travelers argued that this recommendation was discretionary and that they did not need to pay for it.  The school district argued that under the terms of the policy, Travelers was required to pay for all of the work necessary to comply with the ordinances of the state, and this was an ordinance, since it came directly from the fire marshal.

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roof tilesThere are two distinct phases to most negligence cases. First, the court must determine whether the defendant was in fact negligent and is liable for damages. Second, the court must decide what the amount of damages owed is. Often, these issues are addressed simultaneously at trial. In other cases, the court may divide a Tennessee negligence case into a “liability” stage and a “damages” stage.

Calculating damages can be extremely complicated, since the parties often disagree about the amount of certain damages or injuries, as well as how the overall category of damages should be calculated. While courts have some guidance as to how to calculate damages, often much of the work is left up to their discretion, as illustrated in a recent Court of Appeals Case.

In this negligence case, P.D. hired MTown Construction to replace his roof. On the day that MTown arrived and began taking shingles off the home, a huge thunderstorm began pouring rain onto the property. MTown was unprepared for the rain and attempted to cover the empty holes in P.D.’s roof. They were unsuccessful, and rain flooded into P.D.’s home. After the storm was over, P.D. contacted MTown’s owner, who agreed to come out and survey the damage. He initially offered to make repairs, but after speaking with several contractors, the house was considered a loss due to the water damage.

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ATVsTypically during the settlement of claims between a plaintiff and a defendant, the defendant will want assurances that the plaintiff will not turn around and sue him or her again for different types of related claims, or otherwise continue to drag out litigation after a settlement is reached. In order to create these assurances, parties will usually sign what is known as a release.

A release essentially gives up outstanding claims that a plaintiff may have, whether known or not known at the time. Releases can be narrowly limited to the exact facts of the case or more broadly construed to cover any possible claims a plaintiff may have. While releases are often a normal part of the settlement process, they must be treated very carefully, since a plaintiff can easily and unwittingly give up more than he or she intended. This is illustrated in a recent Tennessee personal injury case before the Tennessee Court of Appeals.

In this ATV accident case, L.J. was a passenger in an ATV accident and was severely injured. The driver of the ATV, L.S., was killed in the accident.  L.J. alleged that the accident was a result of negligence on the part of L.S. and brought a claim for medical bills and personal injury against L.S.’s estate in probate court.  L.J. also filed a lawsuit against the personal representative of L.S.’s estate. At the time, L.J. also had uninsured motorist coverage through Geico, and Geico was added as a party to the lawsuit. The estate subsequently settled with L.J., offering her a semi truck that had been owned by the defendant, which was sold and of which L.J. received the profits.

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bicyclesNot all personal injury cases involve straightforward facts and circumstances, in which one party clearly committed a wrong and the other party was obviously injured. In many accident cases, multiple parties make errors, mistakes, or bad decisions that lead to the ultimate accident and injuries. And in those cases, determining who is at fault, and who should be held liable, can become very complicated. This is illustrated in a recent Tennessee bike accident case decided by the Court of Appeals, in which a variety of actions led to the unfortunate death of one biker involved.

In this recent accident case, W.C. was killed during an accident involving his local road biking group. On the morning of the accident, W.C. was riding in a pace line formation with his biking friends, including M.N. and G.L. M.N.’s front tire hit G.L.’s back tire, for reasons that were in dispute, which caused M.N. to crash and led to a chain reaction down the pace line, until eventually W.C., in an effort to avoid the crash, swerved and ended up going head first over his bike. He was rendered quadriplegic and died several weeks later.

W.C.’s wife sued M.N. for W.C.’s death, and M.N. named G.L. as an additional possible defendant under the doctrine of comparative fault. W.C.’s wife then joined G.L. as an additional defendant. At trial, M.N. presented evidence that he had only run into G.L. because G.L. slowed down suddenly and unexpectedly. G.L. then presented evidence that he had not slowed down suddenly, but M.N. had failed to follow carefully and had run into his bike. Both sides presented expert testimony and the testimony of witnesses. Both. M.N. and G.L. then moved for summary judgment.

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up-the-ladder-1498174-300x226Most homeowners have, at any given time, hired a repairman or handyman to take care of some sort of project at their home. Whether fixing an appliance, building a new staircase, or correcting faulty electrical wiring, the need for help can often seem endless.  For most homeowners, the though of what would happen if a repairman injured himself while at their home never crosses their mind. A recent case before the Tennessee Court of Appeals, however, addresses this exact issue after an injury during a paint job.

In this negligence case, M.E. was hired by his boss, M.T. to perform a side job at her home for her after hours. She needed various parts of the exterior of her home repainted and M.E. agreed to do so. On the first day he arrives, M.T. provided M.E. with paint, tools, and ladders to access the house. Shortly thereafter, M.T. left and did not return to the home for the next few days.

While working on the home, M.E. claimed to have experienced problems with the ladders he was provided and believed them to be faulty. Nonetheless, he wanted to finish the job so he continued to use them. On the third day, after climbing up the ladder to paint the eaves, the ladder fell out from underneath him and he tumbled to the ground, injuring his wrist.  M.E. then sued M.T. for failing to provide him with safe equipment and protect him while on her property.

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graveUnder Tennessee’s wrongful death statute, when a loved one dies, there are certain family members who get priority to bring wrongful death lawsuits on the loved one’s behalf. Spouses have the primary right to bring such a claim, while children have a secondary right after spouses.  Since Tennessee legislators did not want anyone to benefit off the intentional killing of another person, any person who intentionally causes the death of a loved one cannot then bring a claim on that person’s behalf. This principle is known as the slayer statute.  While the slayer statute clearly applies to intentional harm, it is unclear whether it also applies to someone who negligently causes the death of another person. A recent Tennessee Supreme Court decision addressed this issue.

In this Tennessee wrongful death case, C.M. and J.B were involved in a road rage dispute when their vehicles crossed into incoming traffic and caused an accident. As a result of the accident, C.M.’s wife was killed. C.M. and his wife had one daughter, B.N.  Shortly after the accident, B.N. filed a wrongful death action on behalf of her mother and named both C.M. and J.B. as defendants. In the complaint, B.N. alleged that C.M. was under the influence of an intoxicant at the time of the accident and that his negligent actions disqualified him from bringing a wrongful death lawsuit himself. At the time, C.M. was in jail for vehicular homicide resulting from the accident.

C.M. later filed a wrongful death action on behalf of his wife, arguing that B.N.’s complaint should be dismissed because he had priority to file the wrongful death lawsuit as the spouse. C.M’s lawsuit named J.B. as a defendant but did not name himself. Ultimately, the trial court agreed with C.M. that he had priority and dismissed B.N.’s complaint.  B.N. appealed. On appeal, the appellate court held that C.M. had an inherent conflict of interest because he could be both the plaintiff and the defendant in a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of his wife, and accordingly only B.N.’s lawsuit would allow for the full prosecution of all claims C.M.’s wife, and B.N.’s mother, might have. It reversed the lower court and reinstated B.N.’s claim. C.M. then appealed.