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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.

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treesDuties in a negligence case can arise from a variety of circumstances. A landlord may have a duty to protect a tenant or the general public from known dangerous conditions. A medical professional may have a duty to treat patients with a professional degree of care. Duties can also arise when a statute requires certain individuals to act in a certain manner or fulfill certain obligations. A recent case before the Kentucky Supreme Court looks at whether a failure to comply with a statutory duty results in strict liability. It may be interesting to Tennessee motorcycle accident victims as well.

In this accident case, L.M. was driving his motorcycle in Louisville shortly after a large windstorm when he ran into a tree that had not been cleared from the road. L.M. suffered serious injuries from the accident. L.M. sued the Louisville Gas and Electric Company, as well as the Assistant Director of Public Works for Louisville. He alleged a negligent failure to remove the trees or warn pedestrians about the hazards in the road. L.M. also alleged that under Kentucky statute 179.070, the Assistant Director of Public Works, R.S., who was also a county engineer, had the duty to remove all trees and obstacles from the road and was negligent in failing to fulfill this duty.

At trial, R.S. acknowledged that the statute existed but testified that he was not aware of the statute at the time of the accident or his duties under the statute. He also testified that the Department of Public Works had delegated the handling of tree removal to the operations and maintenance division, which had always handled tree removal. In light of this evidence, the jury ultimately determined that R.S. had not failed to comply with his duty under the statute. L.M. immediately moved for a new trial, arguing that the jury’s verdict went against the weight of the evidence because R.S. had acknowledged the statute placing the duty on him to remove trees, and he had not actually removed the trees that caused L.M.’s injury. The trial court denied the motion, and L.M. appealed.

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handsWhen a loved one dies as a result of another party’s negligence, certain heirs to the decedent have priority to bring a lawsuit on the decedent’s behalf. Under Tennessee law, the surviving spouse of someone who dies has first priority to bring a lawsuit. If a surviving spouse does not exist, any children the individual has have priority as litigants. Finally, if no children exist, the parents of the person who died may sue.  While this is the order of priority under Tennessee law, it is not always followed by individuals who wish to sue on behalf of their loved ones. As with the case below, when a parent seeks to recover first, those who have priority, such as spouses or children, must be vigilant in ensuring that their legal rights are not preempted by another family member who is the first to make it to the courtroom.

In this recent Tennessee wrongful death case, D.H. was killed after being unlawfully handcuffed and detained at a family dollar store in Tennessee. Prior to his death, D.H. had fathered a child with C.H., but he was not involved in the child’s life nor had custody over the child. Instead, at the time of his death, D.H. was living with his mother, M.C. After his death, M.C. approached a local attorney to file a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of D.H.’s child and herself. C.H. was informed of the possible lawsuit and her child’s involvement but heard nothing further. Several months later, the attorney decided not to move forward with the lawsuit and notified M.C. It was disputed whether M.C. or the attorney notified C.H. According to C.H., she presumed that the attorney was representing her for the next two years but did not attempt to contact him.

Several months later, in November 2009, M.C. retained another attorney to bring a lawsuit for her son’s wrongful death with her as representative. M.C. did not include C.H. and D.H.’s son in this lawsuit and represented, by affidavit, that she was the sole heir of her son. In March 2010, M.C. reached a settlement with Family Dollar and signed a release of all claims. On March 31, 2010, the case was dismissed with prejudice. It was not until November 2011 that C.H. finally met with a new legal aid attorney about her son’s claim and learned about M.C.’s lawsuit. In December 2011, she filed a motion to set aside the order dismissing M.C.’s case, arguing that her son was a lawful heir of D.H. and had priority over M.C. The trial court denied the motion on the basis that it was untimely, since it had been more than a year since the order was entered, and it would not be fair to require Family Dollar to relitigate the case after it had already settled with M.C. C.H. appealed.

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slush
Tennessee premises liability actions can arise under any circumstances in which a property owner fails to take care of dangerous conditions or does not warn guests of existing hazards. In the winter, however, these kinds of actions can become even more common as guests and customers attempt to navigate their way through snow, ice, and everything in between. As the below case illustrates, landlords and tenants must be conscious of the dangers imposed by winter weather.

In this parking lot case, T.N. was leaving a tanning session at Elite Beach Tanning Company when she slipped and fell on ice hidden below a pile of slush. T.N. did not realize the ice was there as she stepped down, fell, and injured herself. At the time of the fall, T.N. was in a parking lot adjacent to Elite, which was owned by the landlord, First Bank. T.N. sued Elite, First Bank, and the company responsible for maintaining the parking lot for her injuries. After initial discovery, Elite moved for summary judgment by arguing that T.N. could not establish that Elite owed her a duty to keep the parking spaces safe. As support for the motion, Elite attached a copy of its lease agreement with First Bank, which clearly stated that First Bank was responsible for maintaining common areas, including the parking lot. Given this agreement, the lower court granted the motion for summary judgment. T.N. was granted an interlocutory appeal and appealed to the Court of Appeals.

On appeal, T.N. argued that Elite owed her a duty to protect her from dangers in the parking spaces for two reasons. First, she argued that Elite assumed control over the parking spaces when it kept them free from employee cars and directed customers to park there. Second, she argued that since the parking spots were only 15 feet away from Elite’s front door and could clearly be seen, they constituted part of Elite’s approach, for which Elite was responsible.

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white-lines-1446293-300x300When a plaintiff files a complaint in a lawsuit, he or she must take great care to include all relevant facts that help establish his or her case. While plaintiffs are not required to include every single little detail related to the case, they must include sufficient information so that a court, taking their allegations as true, could find that a claim exists. Sometimes after an initial complaint is filed, a plaintiff will realize that certain important information is missing, or will discover new information that he or she would like to add. When this happens, a plaintiff can file a motion to amend, which, if granted, allows the plaintiff to amend the complaint to add additional information or clarify. As the case below demonstrates, courts generally allow motions to amend, if reasonable, and should consider this amended information when deciding whether to dismiss a case.

In this premise liability case, the plaintiff, B.S., was a bus driver who was attending a school district training conducted by the Nashville government. She was not allowed to drive her own bus to the training but was required to take a shuttle. After she parked her bus and began walking toward the shuttle, she tripped on a buckled and uneven portion of the parking lot pavement, causing her to fall and sustain injuries. The buckling was the result of flooding that had occurred in Nashville in 2010, three years before B.S.’s fall.

B.S. sued the Nashville government for its failure to adequately maintain the parking lot. She argued that the parking lot had been in a state of disrepair for such a long time that the government should have been aware of the condition, but failed to fix it or to warn her of the problems. Several months after the filing of the initial complaint, B.S. moved to amend her complaint to add an additional claim of negligence based on the parking lot’s failure to meet applicable building codes. B.S. had retained an expert to review the relevant building codes and the state of the parking lot and determined that the government was not in compliance. At the time of B.S.’s motion to amend, the Nashville government had a pending motion for summary judgment against B.S.

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observation deckIn many Tennessee personal injury cases, the duties of one party to another are clearly defined. For instance, a landlord owes specific duties to a tenant, and a doctor owes certain duties to a patient. In other circumstances, however, the exact duties owed by one party to another are not concretely established and must be determined by reviewing the actions of the parties and the promises made. This was the case in a recent home inspector lawsuit reviewed by the Tennessee Supreme Court.

In this home defect case, D.U. sought to buy a home in Franklin, Tennessee. With the help of his brother, he hired a home inspector to inspect a possible home. The home inspector noted issues with some flooring on the deck of the home but did not report any other problems. The home owners agreed to replace the deck flooring and did so prior to the sale. Shortly after D.U. purchased the home, he hosted a party at his house. C.G. was on the deck of the house when the railing against which he was leaning collapsed, causing C.G. to fall and resulting in severe injuries. C.G. originally sued D.U., the previous home owner, the contractor who repaired the flooring, the home inspector, and the home inspection franchise. Eventually, the case was reduced to claims against the home inspector and the home inspection franchise.

C.G. alleged negligence against the home inspector for failing to exercise reasonable care in conducting his inspection and failing to notice the problems with the deck railing, including that it did not meet building inspection codes. Shortly after discovery was completed, the home inspector and his franchise moved for summary judgment, arguing that as a matter of law, they did not owe a duty to a third party like C.G. The trial court agreed and granted summary judgment. The Court of Appeals agreed and affirmed the lower court’s decision. C.G. then appealed.