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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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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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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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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.

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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.