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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:

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:

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:

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.  

P.S. On February 5, 2021 this opinion was designated as "Not for Citation" by the Tennessee Supreme Court under its Rule 4.  

Tuesday, October 06, 2020

New Health Care Liability Action Opinion: Summary Judgment and Multiple Defendants; Respondeat Superior Claim to Be Considered upon Remand

The Tennessee Court of Appeals issued its opinion yesterday in Kidd v. Dickerson, No. M2018-01133-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 5, 2020).  The syllabus reads:

In this health care liability action, the surviving daughter of a woman who died as a result of a stroke brought suit as executrix of her mother’s estate and as her next-of-kin against two physicians and their practice group as well as a pharmacist who filled a prescription for her and the pharmacist’s employer. Plaintiff alleged that the death occurred due to a stroke her mother suffered as a result of taking the drug Pradaxa, which had been prescribed by the defendant doctors and filled by the defendant pharmacist and the defendant pharmacy (the “pharmacy defendants”). The trial court granted summary judgment to the pharmacy defendants on all claims, holding that the proof submitted by Plaintiff was insufficient to establish the element of causation; the court granted summary judgment to the defendant doctors on Plaintiff’s claims that their negligence caused and hastened the decedent’s death, and the claim that the doctors did not have the decedent’s informed consent to administer Pradaxa; the court granted summary judgment to one doctor on all claims; and the court denied summary judgment to one doctor and the practice group on the remaining claims. Plaintiff appeals the grant of summary judgment to the pharmacy defendants and the doctors; the remaining doctor and practice group appeal the denial of their motions for summary judgment on the remaining claims. Upon our de novo review, we affirm the grant of summary judgment to the pharmacy defendants; we affirm the grant of summary judgment to Dr. Thomas Farmer in toto; we affirm in part the grant of partial summary judgment to the doctors and their group and remand for further proceedings on whether the nurse practitioner’s actions caused Ms. Grimes’ injury and suffering during the period of October 20 until she was stabilized in the hospital, as well as whether the remaining doctor and practice group are liable for that negligence under a respondeat superior theory. 

Here is a link to the slip opinion:

NOTE: This opinion is long for a state-court opinion.  However, it is a good read if one handles health care liability cases (f.k.a. medical malpractice cases) governed by Tennessee substantive law.