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Monday, November 23, 2020

New Case on Who Is Able to Bring a Tort Claim on Behalf of a Decedent Who Died Before Suit Is Filed from Causes Unrelated to the Tort Action in Question

The Tennessee Court of Appeals recently released its opinion in Jones v. Martin, No. W2019-02047-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Nov. 20, 2020).  The syllabus from the slip opinion reads:

Appellant and her son were driver and passenger, respectively, in a motor vehicle when they were struck in the rear by a vehicle driven by one of the Appellees. Appellant’s son later died from medical causes not related to the accident. Appellant then filed suit for injuries in her own name and as next of kin of her deceased son. Following arguments by the Appellees that Appellant had no authority to prosecute the case on behalf of her son, the trial court dismissed the claim corresponding to the injuries allegedly sustained by the son. Appellant then took a nonsuit of her remaining claim. This appeal concerns initially whether or not the judgment on appeal is a final judgment and, if so, the application of Tennessee Code Annotated section 20-5-102 to this case. Tennessee Code Annotated section 20-5-102, which provides for the survival of actions despite the death of the person wronged, specifies that the right of action shall pass “in like manner as the right of action described in § 20-5-106.” By way of that referenced authority, it is clear that a next of kin is one of the persons authorized to bring an action that survives under section 20-5-102. For the reasons set out herein, we conclude that we have jurisdiction to hear this appeal and reverse the trial court’s dismissal. 

Here is a link to the slip opinion:

http://www.tncourts.gov/sites/default/files/jonesgloriaopn.pdf.

NOTE: As the title of this blog post indicates, this opinion does a good job of explaining who may bring a tort claim on behalf of a decedent who dies before suit is filed from causes unrelated to the tort action in question.  Pay attention to footnote 4 and its citation to Tenn. Code Ann. sec. 20-5-104; a prerequisite to being able to revive the tort suit via the deceased's heirs is that it be shown that no person will administer the deceased's estate.   (Be mindful, too, that any recovery made in instances like the one presented in this case is property of the deceased's estate.)  

Monday, November 16, 2020

New Health Care Liability Action Opinion: Dismissal of Claim Against Provider Upheld on Appeal Due to Improper Service of Presuit Notice of the Claim to the Provider

The Tennessee Court of Appeals recently released its opinion in Webb v. Trevecca Center for Rehabilitation and Healing, LLC, No. No. M2019-01300-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Nov. 10, 2020).  They syllabus from the slip opinion reads:

This appeal concerns the dismissal of a health care liability action against a long-term care facility. The trial court dismissed the complaint without prejudice because the plaintiff did not provide the long-term care facility with pre-suit notice of her claim as required by statute. The plaintiff argues that the notice she mailed to the facility’s administrator at the facility’s business address satisfied the statutory requirement. Because her letter was not directed to the facility, we affirm the dismissal of her complaint. 

Here is a link to the slip opinion:

https://www.tncourts.gov/sites/default/files/webb.judy_.opn_.pdf.

NOTE: This opinion emphasizes the importance of proper service of presuit notice of a potential health care liability action claim.  It is very difficult to do that a lot of the time due to one not being able to determine what entity is the correct one to send notice to before suit is filed.  However, in this instance, it appears that the procedure set out under Tenn. Code Ann. sec. 29-26-121(a)(3)(B)(ii), which governs notice that must be sent to "a health care provider that is a corporation or other business entity," was not followed.        


Monday, November 09, 2020

New Opinion on Prejudgment Interest in Uninsured Motorist Cases: Propriety of Prejudgment Interest to Be Determined by the Trial Court on Remand

The Tennessee Court of Appeals recently released its opinion in Lewis v. State Farm, No. W2019-01493-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Nov. 5, 2020).  The syllabus from the slip opinion reads:
Appellant was injured in an automobile accident, and a jury found that an unknown motorist was 100% at fault and awarded damages in favor of Appellant. Thereafter, the trial court denied Appellant prejudgment interest on its finding that Appellant’s uninsured automobile insurance policy with Appellee State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company precludes an award of prejudgment interest. We conclude that the policy language “all damages” is sufficiently broad to include prejudgment interest. However, because the award of prejudgment interest is an equitable consideration within the discretion of the trial court, we decline to address Appellant’s issue concerning whether prejudgment interest is necessary and equitable in this case. This question is remanded to the trial court. Vacated and remanded.
Here is a link to the slip opinion:


NOTE: This opinion offers a good analysis of prejudgment interest in a uninsured-motorist case.  


Tuesday, November 03, 2020

New Health Care Liability Action Opinion: Dismissal of Plaintiff's Case (Erroneously?) Upheld on Appeal Due to Defective HIPAA-compliant Authorizations

Yesterday, the Tennessee Court of Appeals released its opinion in Dial v. Klemis, No. W2019-02115-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Nov. 2, 2020).  The syllabus from the slip opinion reads:
This is a health care liability case. The defendants moved to dismiss the complaint due to the plaintiff’s failure to comply with Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-26- 121(a)(2)(E), arguing that the plaintiff had not provided them HIPAA compliant medical authorizations allowing them to receive medical records from the other providers being sent statutorily-required pre-suit notice. The trial court agreed with the defendants’ argument and, upon observing that the plaintiff was not entitled to rely on the 120-day extension of the statutory limitation period pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-26-121(c), held that the complaint was time-barred and should be dismissed with prejudice. Discerning no error, we affirm.
Here is a link to the opinion:


NOTE: I think this opinion missed something, respectfully, because the defendants could have actually gotten the decedent's protected health information without a authorization at all as part of their "health care operations."  Tony Duncan, New Health Care Liability Action Opinion: Trial Court's Dismissal of Action as Time-barred Overturned on Appeal, TONY DUNCAN L. BLOG, Note (Jul. 3, 2018, 3:58 PM), http://theduncanlawfirm.blogspot.com/2018/07/new-health-care-liability-action.html.



Tuesday, October 20, 2020

New Motor Vehicle Collision Case: Jury Verdict for Defendant Upheld on Appeal

The Tennessee Court of Appeals recently rendered its decision Justice v. Gaiter, No. M2019-01299-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 15, 2020).  The syllabus from the slip opinion reads:

This appeal arises from a motor vehicle accident in a shopping center complex during the Christmas season. Plaintiff appeals the jury’s finding that he was sixty percent at fault for the accident and the trial court’s denial of his motion for a new trial. Finding that the jury’s apportionment of fault is supported by material evidence and that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying the motion for a new trial, we affirm the trial court in all respects.

Here is a link to the opinion:

http://www.tncourts.gov/sites/default/files/justice.james_.opn_.pdf.

NOTE: There is a lot going on in this opinion for it to be only six pages long: namely, comparative fault, motions for new trial, the material evidence rule, the thirteenth juror rule, abuse of discretion, etc.  Primarily, what I took from it is the discussion of the material evidence rule, which is great in my opinion.  For that reason alone, this is a must-read decision for any lawyer who has handles auto cases governed by Tennessee substantive law.  

Also, I think the plaintiff left out a potentially culpable person by not suing the driver who waived the defendant into the lane, which probably cost him a win here.  That could have been accomplished via the discovery rule or Tenn. Code Ann. sec. 20-1-119 (the comparative fault joinder statute), even if that driver was unknown (with -119 being the more likely way to have done that).  Here is why: while a "phantom" tortfeasor or a "John Doe" is generally not allowed in Tennessee under our system of modified comparative fault, see Brown v. Wal-Mart Discount Cities, 12 S.W.3d 785, 786 (Tenn. 2000) ("[W]e conclude that the defendant may not attribute fault to a nonparty who is not identified sufficiently to allow the plaintiff to plead and serve process on such person pursuant to Tenn. Code Ann. § 20-1-119 . . . ."), they are allowed in auto cases, see, e.g.Breeding v. Edwards, 62 S.W.3d 170, 171 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2001) (allowing fault to be attributed to an unknown tortfeasor in a auto case and a monetary recovery for that fault to be made from plaintiff's underinsured-motorist insurance (UIM)); Marler v. Scoggins, 105 S.W.3d 596, (Tenn. Ct. App. 2002) (allowing fault to be attributed to a John Doe in an auto case under Tennessee law even if there is no UIM to pay plaintiff for fault attributed to the Doe).  Doing that would have made a difference in the outcome here because under our state's system of modified comparative fault, a plaintiff may only recover if he is 49% at fault of less.  Had the driver been made a party and been found to be more than 10% at fault, which is probable, the plaintiff would have recovered something (minus his fault, of course (which would probably not have been 60% and would have been less than 50% had the driver been added as a John Doe party-defendant)).  

Trial practice is not easy, folks.  There are so many moving parts in a case at times that it is like herding cats. Lord willing, me all make our way.  

P.S.  And, of course, if the driver's identity was known (or became known), the plaintiff could have added her as a named party-defendant and the fault calculations above would probably have played out the same way in my opinion.  Assuming the addition was timely done.  

Monday, October 19, 2020

New Case on Service of Leading Process and the Tolling of the Statute of Limitations: Dismissal of the Case Vacated and Remanded Because Trial Court Did Not Consider Enlargement of Time to Effect Service of Leading Process First

The Tennessee Court of Appeals has released its opinion in Stafford v. Lucas, No. W2019-01438-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 15, 2020).  The syllabus from the slip opinion reads:

The trial court dismissed this lawsuit for failure to timely serve the defendants after finding that it was “unaware of an exception to this rule or authority to expand the time for service.”  Prior to the hearing, however, the plaintiffs filed a motion for enlargement of time under Rule 6.02 of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure. The trial court did not specifically address this motion. As such, the trial court’s dismissal of the complaint is vacated, and this matter is remanded with instructions for the trial court to rule on plaintiffs’ motion for an enlargement of time. 

Here is a link to the opinion:

http://www.tncourts.gov/sites/default/files/staffordrodneyopn.pdf.

NOTE: This case is a "MEMORANDUM OPINION" and "shall not be published, and shall not be cited or relied on for any reason in any unrelated case."  StaffordNo. W2019-01438-COA-R3-CV, slip op. n.1, at 1 (quoting Tenn. Ct. App. R. 10).  However, even with that admonition in mind, this is still a must-read opinion for any lawyer who practices in Tennessee state courts.  Here's why: even though this case appears to be a "health care liability action," compare id., passim, with T.C.A. § 29-26-101(a) (LEXIS through 2020 Reg. Sess.) (defining a "health care liability action" in Tennessee to be an a civil action against a health care provider or providers arising from an injury caused by the provision of, or failure to provide, health care services to a person), the enlargement of time dealt with herein applies to all cases in Tennessee trail courts of record.  Tenn. R. Civ. P. 1 (2005) (noting that "the Rules of Civil Procedure shall govern procedure in the circuit or chancery courts in all civil actions, whether at law or in equity, and in all other courts while exercising the civil jurisdiction of the circuit or chancery courts" (emphasis added)).  And, of course, the authorities cited in this opinion can be cited in other cases based upon their respective weight of authority.  See generally Tenn. Sup Ct. R. 4(G) (2015) (discussing weight to be given to Tennessee decisions).  

To cut to the chase, this case deals with the enlargement of time to effect service of leading process upon a defendant.  Stafford, supra, passim.  While the plaintiff in this case could have made things a lot easier on the trial court by paying better attention to the service-of-process issue and not letting the issue arise, I think this opinion is correctly decided.  Assuming the plaintiff can meet the criteria to establish excusable neglect upon remand, see id. at 6, the case should be allowed to proceed for at least two reasons: first, continued litigation in and of itself is not prejudicial to a defendant in Tenn., see Henry v. Goins, 104 S.W.3d 475, (Tenn. 2003) ("Simply having to proceed to trial does not constitute prejudice, nor does the mere passage of time."  (Citations omitted.)); second, Tennessee has a long-established policy of settling cases upon their merits and not upon procedural technicalities, Branch v. Warren, 527 S.W.2d 89, 91 (Tenn. 1975) (noting that civil actions are to be determined upon their merits and not on procedural technicalities); accord Karash v. Piggott, 530 S.W.2d 775, 777 (Tenn. 1975) (same); Henley v. Cobb, 916 S.W.2d 915, 916 (Tenn. 1996) (same); Doyle v. Frost, 49 S.W.3d 853, 856 (Tenn. 2001) (same); Foster v. St. Joseph Hosp., 158 S.W.3d 418, 422 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2004) (same); Jones v. Prof'l Motorcycle Escort Serv., L.L.C., 193 S.W.3d 564, 572 (Tenn.2006) (same); Webb v. Nashville Area Habitat for Humanity, Inc., 346 S.W.3d 422, 432 (Tenn. 2011) (same); see also Abraham Caruthers, History of a Lawsuit § 1, at 2 (Sam B. Gilreath & Bobby R. Aderholt eds., 8th ed. 1963, The W.H. Anderson Co.) (discussing, inter alia, the reasons our state's courts exist). 

Saturday, October 10, 2020

New Health Care Liability Action Opinion: Trial Court's Denial of Sanctions Sought by Defendant-Physician Against Other Defendants for the Latter's Failure to Support Claim Against Defendant-Physician with Competent Expert Testimony Under Tenn. Code Ann. sec. 29-26-122 Upheld on Appeal

The Tennessee Court of Appeals has issued its opinion in Smih v. Outen, No. W2019-01226-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 9, 2020).  The syllabus from the slip opinion reads:

In this health care liability action, the defendant pharmacists were sued for dispensing the wrong medication to the plaintiff. The defendants then alleged comparative fault against Appellant doctor, who was treating the patient. The plaintiff amended her complaint to allege fault against the doctor. However, the doctor was eventually granted summary judgment when no expert was produced to support the claim. Appellant doctor then sought sanctions pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-26-122(d)(3) on the basis that, inter alia, the defendants’ certificate of good faith was supported by the written statement of an incompetent expert witness. The trial court denied the motion for sanctions. We affirm. 

Here is a link to the slip opinion:

http://www.tncourts.gov/sites/default/files/smithdebraopn_0.pdf.

NOTE: This opinion analyzes the effects of a defendant failing to comply with Tenn. Code Ann. sec. 29-26-122.  It is a must-read opinion for any lawyer who handles health care liability actions (f.k.a. medical malpractice cases) governed by Tennessee law.