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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.

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car crashIn personal injury cases, one of the biggest questions that a jury must determine is how much a plaintiff should get, if anything, in damages. Damages are usually the collection of costs like medical bills, lost wages, pain and suffering, damage to property, and other expenses that a plaintiff has incurred. In some instances, however, the amount that the plaintiff was initially charged for an expense is not the same as the amount that was ultimately paid. For example, perhaps a car dealership quoted the plaintiff a certain price, but the plaintiff’s friend agreed to cover half the cost. In these types of situations, a common question in calculating damages is whether the jury should look at the total expense incurred or the total expense paid.

In a recent Tennessee car accident case, the Tennessee Court of Appeals addressed this precise question. At the time, A.S. and L.S. were driving their vehicle when they were hit by a truck driven by a Tennessee Department of Transportation employee. The employee turned in front of their car without giving them time to stop, and they experienced both physical injuries and damage to their property. At the time of trial, A.S. and L.S. both presented evidence of their medical bills to support their claim for damages based on medical expenses. The Department of Transportation argued that both plaintiffs had received medical discounts on their bills, and the amount of those discounts should be provided to the jury under a Tennessee statute that provided for the presentation of “actual damages.”

In response, A.S. and L.S. argued that the collateral source rule prevented defendants from using evidence that a debt had been reduced or forgiven. The idea behind the rule is that the true measure of the damages a plaintiff has faced is the damages that were billed, even if those bills were later decreased. Ultimately, the jury was allowed to review evidence of the full amount billed, and the Department of Transportation appealed.

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question markThe way lawsuits are structured presumes that plaintiffs will usually know which defendant they want to sue. They will know the name of their neighbor or doctor or employer and be able to identify that person in a lawsuit. Sometimes, however, it isn’t so simple. You may want to sue a manager who inspected the equipment that injured you but not know that person’s exact name, for example. In those instances, plaintiffs typically use “Jane Doe” or “John Doe” to stand in for an unidentified individual. While cases can proceed against Does for some period of time, courts will require that they eventually be identified or be dismissed.

For instance, in a recent Tennessee auto accident case, S.S. brought claims against K.S. for being hit by a truck driven by K.S. while at a truck stop. S.S. also sued K.S.’s employer, CCI. During the course of discovery, CCI learned about the possibility that another individual had actually hit S.S. Specifically, CCI learned that a 911 tape of the accident existed. It requested a copy of the tape first by subpoena and then by public record request. Once it had the tape, it located the number of the man who had called in, found him, and deposed him. He testified that S.S. had in fact been hit by an unidentified driver driving an Averitt tractor trailer truck.

When CCI learned this, they moved to amend their complaint to add an affirmative defense that Averitt and the John Doe driver were responsible for the accident. Averitt moved to strike the affirmative defense, arguing that CCI had not properly identified the John Doe, and, since they could not identify him, the claim should be dismissed. The lower court agreed and dismissed the affirmative defense. CCI appealed.

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dumpstersSometimes when an accident occurs, the cause of the accident can easily be assigned to one person. For example, a drunk driver may hit another driver who is cautiously driving down the road. Other times, the cause can be more convoluted. While a perpetrator may be driving recklessly down the road, the victim may likewise be speeding at the time the accident occurs.

A recent Tennessee premises liability case before the Tennessee Court of Appeals looks at a question of complicated negligence and evaluates how fault should be assigned to the various parties involved. R.O. was a builder in Tennessee who visited the East Nashville Convenience Center to dispose of building materials. The Convenience Center was a place where local residents could go to dispose of trash too big for normal pickup. The Convenience Center had two levels, one with trash bins below and one above where individuals could park their cars to throw their trash down into the lower bins. To avoid cars falling off the upper level, it was surrounded by a concrete barrier that had several holes, or cuts, used for drainage purposes.

R.O. drove his truck up to a parking spot on the upper level and got out of his car to dispose of his trash. He stood on the concrete barrier to make it easier to throw trash down below and walked back and forth from his car to the bin. While attempting to dump his trash, he stepped into one of the cuts used for drainage purposes and fell five feet below to the lower level, breaking his arm. Shortly thereafter, he sued the Metropolitan Government of Nashville for maintaining a dangerous condition at the Convenience Center and failing to properly warn citizens.

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shopping-cart-1467039-300x255Sometimes when a plaintiff is injured as a result of another’s actions, or a dangerous condition, he or she will not know precisely which defendants may need to be sued. For example, a plaintiff may sue a business for a cracked sidewalk, but might not know whether the business owns the property or if there is another landlord who should be included.

One way to discover additional defendants is through comparative fault. Where a defendant is sued and that defendant believes there are other parties who should be considered as being at fault for the accident, they may file a notice of comparative fault, designating other individuals as entities as partially responsible for the accident. This works to hopefully limit the defendant’s own liability, but also alerts the plaintiff to the possibility of other potential defendants.

In a recent case before the Tennessee Court of Appeals, the court looked at when a second defendant who is identified after a notice of comparative fault can properly be sued and how long a plaintiff has to bring a claim. In that case, M.S. sued Publix grocery stores after she fell at her local grocery store while taking her grocery purchases to her car. According to the lawsuit, there was a loose mat outside the elevator that M.S. was using and she tripped on the mat, causing her injuries. M.S. was aware that Publix had a landlord and sued the landlord, known as the Hill Defendants, as well. At the time of her initial suit, Publix filed a notice of comparative fault identifying the Hill Defendants as potentially at fault in the accident. Shortly thereafter, for unknown reasons, M.S. dismissed the Hill Defendants from the lawsuit.

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orange doorAs previously mentioned on this blog, governmental actors are entitled to many special protections in Tennessee when they are the subjects of lawsuits. Under the Tennessee Governmental Immunity Act, governmental agencies and their employees are immune from liability in certain situations. Typically, when a governmental agency or entity is sued, the burden is on the plaintiff to show that governmental immunity does not apply. If the plaintiff cannot do so, the lawsuit will most likely be dismissed, as illustrated in a recent Court of Appeals case.

In this Tennessee premises liability case, L.W. sued the Chattanooga-Hamilton Hospital Authority after she was severely injured while visiting one of their hospitals, Erlanger, for an appointment. At the time, L.W. was recovering from a broken arm and had an appointment to visit her orthopedic doctor. When she arrived at Erlanger, she stepped into the hospital waiting room to wait for her appointment. Unbeknownst to her at the time, she was standing next to an emergency exit door that had no signage or distinguishing features. When an Erlanger employee suddenly exited the door, the door rammed into L.W., causing her to fly across the room and land on her back.

At the time of the accident, she could no longer feel anything below her neck and believed that she was paralyzed. It was later discovered that she had fractured her hip. As a result of the accident, L.W. lost significant mobility, was required to use a walker, and lived with constant pain.

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car accidentTennessee, like most states throughout the country, imposes limitations on how long plaintiffs have to bring their legal claims, including claims for personal injury. These limitations ensure that claims must be brought within a reasonable amount of time and that plaintiffs cannot simply sit on claims for years before deciding to bring them.

Statutes of limitations are one of the most common ways that plaintiffs accidentally lose their opportunity to bring a lawsuit. Unless very special circumstances exist, after a statute of limitations has passed, a plaintiff is out of luck. For this reason, both plaintiffs and their attorneys must pay close attention to statute of limitations deadlines in order to avoid accidentally losing their opportunity for justice and compensation.

In a recent Tennessee car accident lawsuit, the Tennessee Court of Appeals addressed precisely this type of circumstance. In this case, J.P. was injured after she was involved in an accident caused by B.L. on February 2, 2015. The statute of limitations for personal injury cases in Tennessee is one year, so J.P. brought a lawsuit against B.L. on February 2, 2016.  Unbeknownst to her at the time, B.L. had died on January 4, 2016. Several months after filing her complaint, J.P. learned of B.L.’s death and sought to bring her claim against B.L.’s estate instead. At the time, B.L.’s estate did not have an administrator, so J.P. petitioned for an administrator and in October 2016, moved to amend her complaint to name the administrator as the defendant.

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pipelinesWhen we are injured by another party’s misconduct, we may be certain that we know who and what caused our injuries. Many lawsuits are filed on the belief that a specific individual is responsible for a plaintiff’s harm, or that a certain bad act caused damages.  While plaintiffs might know deep down who is responsible for the pain that they suffered, courts cannot rely on allegations and intuitions when considering legal claims. Instead, they require specific irrefutable evidence to establish the elements of a plaintiff’s claim and to show that a defendant has done harm. A recent case before the Tennessee Court of Appeals illustrates what happens when a plaintiff cannot meet this burden.

In this Tennessee property damage case, J.E. sued Piedmont Natural Gas Company for damages that he alleged were intentionally caused to his sewer line. According to J.E., in 1984, Nashville Gas Company installed a natural gas pipeline near a sewer line that serviced J.E.’s property. In 2013, sewage overflowed into J.E.’s basement. During the process of dealing with the sewer issues, J.E. learned that his sewage line had been damaged by digging equipment. According to J.E., no digging permits had been issued for his property other than to Nashville Gas Company in 1984.

J.E. sued Piedmont Natural Gas Company, which had purchased Nashville Gas Company by that time. J.E. alleged that Piedmont knowingly and intentionally damaged his sewer line while installing their gas line and that Piedmont had intentionally concealed the damage that had occurred. J.E. sought $25,000 in damages to repair his sewer line. At an initial jury trial, the jury awarded J.E. approximately $5,000 in compensatory damages and an additional $10,000 in punitive damages. Piedmont appealed.

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car crashThe Tennessee wrongful death statute permits the surviving spouse and surviving children of an individual who passes away to recover compensation on behalf of the deceased individual for injuries and pain and suffering that the deceased individual experienced prior to death. Wrongful death statutes often allow a surviving family member to sue third parties who negligently caused a loved one’s death. Subject to special exception, Tennessee’s wrongful death statute gives a strong preference to allowing a spouse or children to recover after a wrongful death, but a recent case before the Tennessee Supreme Court considered whether a husband who had essentially abandoned his wife and child should still be able to recover under the statute.

In this car accident case, C.S. and K.S. were previously married, but K.S. abandoned C.S. in April 2009, shortly after they had their child, U.S. C.S. and K.S. never divorced, but K.S. never lived with C.S. and their son again, and he did not pay any child support. In October 2010, C.S. died after an automobile accident with H.R. U.S.’s grandmother, C.O., was awarded guardianship over U.S. after C.S.’s death. In November 2010, K.S. filed a wrongful death lawsuit against H.R., alleging that H.R.’s negligence caused C.S.’s death. Shortly thereafter, C.O. sought to intervene in the wrongful death lawsuit and argued that U.S. was actually the primary representative in the wrongful death lawsuit and that she should be appointed as plaintiff, rather than K.S., because she was U.S.’s guardian. C.O. argued that K.S. could not recover on C.S.’s behalf in a wrongful death claim because he had abandoned C.S. and U.S. and owed child support to four other mothers for four other children. According to C.O., Tennessee’s statute prohibiting a parent from recovering under a wrongful death statute when he owed outstanding child support prevented K.S. from being a plaintiff.

Several months later, the court conducted a hearing on the matter. Around the same time, H.R. announced that she had agreed to settle the matter for the insurance policy limits of $100,000 and would leave it up to the court to determine how that $100,000 should be distributed between U.S. and K.S. The trial court ultimately decided to grant C.O.’s motion and dismiss K.S. from the lawsuit. The court further held that U.S. was entitled to the full $100,000. K.S. appealed.

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motorcycleSometimes in Tennessee personal injury cases, a plaintiff will seek to recover damages from another individual who caused an injury or acted in a negligent manner that led to an injury. In other personal injury cases, an individual may be injured as a result of a simple accident, or an unforeseeable circumstance that another individual did not cause. In these cases, a plaintiff may seek to recover damages from an insurance provider, rather than another individual, in order to pay for medical expenses incurred as a result of the accident that occurred.

Under those circumstances, plaintiffs face the risk not that the defendant will deny liability but that the defendant, the insurance company, will refuse to pay based on some term of the insurance agreement. In a recent case before the Sixth Circuit, an insurance company did exactly that, seeking to deny coverage to a plaintiff based on a policy exception that the Sixth Circuit ultimately determined should not apply.

In this motorcycle accident case, B.H. was injured while riding motorbikes one night with friends. At the time, B.H. and his friends had been drinking, and during their ride B.H. ran into another of his friends. The injuries he suffered were severe, and B.H. accrued more than $200,000 in medical bills. At the time of the accident, B.H.’s alcohol limit was twice the legal limit, and he was charged with operating a motor vehicle over the legal limit. Shortly thereafter, B.H. filed a claim with his insurance company, Companion Life, for his injuries. The plan administrator denied his claim, stating that he fell within an exclusion that prohibited coverage for injuries resulting from the “illegal use of alcohol.” B.H. argued that his use of alcohol was not illegal at the time because he was over the age of 21. Instead, it was his use of a motor vehicle that was illegal. Companion Life disagreed.