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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NOTE: This case is a "MEMORANDUM OPINION" and "shall not be published, and shall not be cited or relied on for any reason in any unrelated case."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). 

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