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All individuals have the constitutional right to have a jury hear their claims. This means that a jury, in addition to a judge, will listen to the facts of the case and determine whether the defendant should be found liable for his or her actions, and what amount of damages, if any, should be awarded. Even in a jury trial, however, the judge plays an important role as a “13th juror” who reviews the outcome of the case and determines whether serious errors have occurred or if the jury’s findings are inconsistent with the evidence presented in the case. In this way, the judge makes sure that the jury has not completely misunderstood the facts presented to them, or reached a biased conclusion.

Where a judge believes that a jury has ruled correctly, but has failed to accurate account for the plaintiff’s damages, in light of the evidence presented, the judge has the option of additur or remittitur. Additur is the process of adding to the jury’s verdict to create an award that better reflects the facts presented in the case, while remittitur allows the judge to reduce the award for the same reason. A recent case before the Tennessee Court of Appeals looked at when additur is and is not appropriate in a jury trial.

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legalnewsKnowledge is a central component of any Tennessee negligence claim. In order for one party to be held liable for negligence toward a dangerous condition that leads to the injury of another, that party must have actual or constructive knowledge that the dangerous condition existed. This protects individuals from being held responsible for conditions or circumstances that they knew nothing about.

While defendants in a negligence case must have knowledge, they can’t use the knowledge requirement to shield themselves from liability. That is, they can’t remain willfully ignorant of a situation or circumstance so that they are not responsible for it. Instead, if they reasonably should have known, they can be held liable on that basis. A recent Tennessee Court of Appeals case looks at a circumstance where even reasonable efforts could not have discovered the danger that was alleged.

In this Tennessee premise liability case, O.J. sued Goodwill Industries after she was injured in an accident at one of their Tennessee stores. O.J. entered the store looking for furniture and noticed a plastic table and chairs sitting near a storefront. She moved the plastic chair and sat down on it in order to test it out. As she sat down, the chair collapsed, breaking and causing her to fall and hit her head. She sued Goodwill for her injuries, arguing that Goodwill had failed to reasonably inspect the structural strength of the chair and that, if it had, it would have known the chair was defective and should not have been placed on the store floor.

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legalnewsIf you have been involved in a Tennessee automobile accident and are considering whether to file a lawsuit, one of the questions that you must contemplate is whether the defendant is going to have the funds, or insurance, necessary to pay for any damages that you may be awarded. When you can’t actually recover from a defendant, it may not be worth your time and expense to initiate a lawsuit.

One way that plaintiffs can sometimes obtain a better chance of recovering on their award is to sue a defendant’s employer as well if the accident occurred while the defendant was on the job. This is called vicarious liability. While vicarious liability can be used to recover from employers who are responsible for their employees, the courts draw the line at making employers responsible for independent contractors that they may hire. A recent case before the Tennessee Court of Appeals looks at what distinguishes an employee from an independent contractor in this analysis.

In this truck accident case, E.M. was struck by a truck driven by C.C. E.M. was thrown from his own vehicle and suffered serious injuries. He sued C.C. and Highways, Inc., for his injuries. At the time of the accident, C.C. was driving a dump truck for Highways, Inc., and was performing his duties as a driver for Highways, Inc.  E.M. argued that C.C. was acting in the role of employee, while Highways argued that C.C. was acting in the role of independent contractor. Highways quickly moved for summary judgment and, in support of their motion, submitted a list of nineteen undisputed facts, based on an affidavit from C.C., that they alleged showed that C.C. was a contractor. E.M. disputed nine of these facts and argued that this was enough to create genuine issues of material fact as to C.C.’s status and avoid summary judgment. The court held a brief hearing and ultimately concluded that there were no material facts in dispute. Accordingly, the court dismissed the claims.

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Legal News GavelFor 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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Legal News GavelWhen 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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Legal News GavelMany 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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Legal News GavelThere 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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Legal News GavelTypically 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.