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Friday, January 29, 2021

New Opinion on Recently Enacted Tennessee Law Extending One-year Statute of Limitations for Personal Injury Actions to Two Years Based upon Certain Criminal Charges Being Brought Against Tortfeasor: Trial Court's Denial of Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment Based upon That New Law Upheld on Appeal

Yesterday the Tennessee Court of Appeals released its decision in Younger v. Okbahhanes, No. E2020-00429-COA-R10-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan,. 28, 2021).  The syllabus from the slip opinion reads:

This appeal arises from a personal injury action. The plaintiff filed this action more than one year after the vehicle collision from which the cause of action accrued. The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the plaintiff’s action was untimely. The plaintiff filed a response arguing that the statute of limitations for personal injury actions was extended to two years, pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated § 28-3-104(a)(2), due to the traffic citation issued to the defendant for failure to exercise due care in violation of section 55-8-136 as a result of the vehicle collision. The Trial Court found that section 28-3-104(a)(2) was applicable to extend the statute of limitations to two years because the defendant had been charged with a criminal offense and a criminal prosecution had been commenced against him. Discerning no error, we affirm.

Here is a link to the slip opinion:

NOTE: This opinion hinges on statutory construction.  As it points out, the primary goal of a court in interpreting a statute is to "apply the plain meaning of a statute’s words in normal and accepted usage without a forced interpretation."  Younger, slip op. at 5 (emphasis added) (quoting Baker v. State, 417 S.W.3d 428, 433 (Tenn. 2013).  That is exactly what the court did here.  

Further, another canon of statutory construction is reductio ad absurdum, which means reduction to the absurd; such an interpretation is to be avoided. Ronald Benton Brown & Sharon Jacobs Brown, Statutory Interpretation: The Search for Legislative Intent 73 (NITA 2d. ed. 2011) [hereinafter Intent at _____ ].  I would submit that the defendant's offered interpretation of Tenn. Code Ann. sec. 28-3-104(a)(2) is a reduction to the absurd, and that is yet another reason (aside from just the statute's plain meaning) to reject that forced interpretation. Compare Tenn. Code Ann. § 28-3-104(a)(2) (LEXIS through 2020 Reg. Sess. and Second Extraordinary Sess.) with Intent, supra, at 73; see also Black's Law Dictionary 1283 (West Grp. 7th ed. 1999) (defining reductio ad absurdum).

Lastly, this decision is absolutely correct in my professional opinion.  However, look for the defendant to seek review of it by SCOTN via an application for permission to appeal via Rule 11 of the Tenn. Rules of Civil Procedure.  Due to this portion of the statute's novelty (enacted in 2015; amended subsection (a)), I think SCOTN might take this one up.  However, I also think if it does it will affirm this decision.  My two cents' worth.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

New Decision from the Tennessee Court of Appeals on Premises Liability: Summary Judgment for Defendant Reversed on Appeal

The Tennessee Court of Appeals released its decision today in Vaughn v. DMC-Memphis, LLC, No. W2019-00886-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 27, 2021).  The syllabus from the slip opinion reads:

Plaintiff filed a claim in general sessions court for injuries she allegedly received when she fell in standing water on the defendant’s premises. Judgment was rendered in favor of the defendant, and the plaintiff appealed to circuit court. The defendant then filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that it owed no duty to the plaintiff and that she was at least 50% at fault for her injuries. In support, the defendant relied on plaintiff’s testimony from the trial in general sessions court. The circuit court granted the motion for summary judgment, and plaintiff again appealed. We vacate the judgment of the trial court.

Here is a link to the slip opinion:

NOTE: This case is a premises liability case.  This decision offers an excellent analysis of Tennessee law on the element of duty in a negligence action and the affirmative defense of a plaintiff’s comparative fault.  It is worth the read in my humble opinion.  

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

New Health Care Liability Action Opinion: Tennessee Supreme Court Upholds Dismissal of Defendants

The Tennessee Supreme Court just released its decision in Bidwell ex rel. Bidwell v. Strait, No. E2018-02211-SC-R11-CV (Tenn. Jan. 26, 2021).  The syllabus from the slip opinion reads:

James Bidwell filed this health care liability action individually and on behalf of his deceased wife, Clarissa Bidwell, and her estate against Drs. Timothy Strait and Jeffrey Colburn (“the physician Defendants”) and the entities he believed to be their employers—the Neurosurgical Group of Chattanooga, P.C., EmCare Inc., and Envision Healthcare Corporation. Mr. Bidwell timely provided pre-suit notice to the named defendants and timely filed his lawsuit. Mr. Bidwell did not provide Chattanooga-Hamilton County Hospital Authority (“Erlanger”) with pre-suit notice, nor did he name Erlanger as a defendant. Furthermore, Dr. Strait and Dr. Colburn did not provide Mr. Bidwell written notice of Erlanger as their correct employer within thirty days of receiving pre-suit notice. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-26-121(a)(5). Dr. Strait answered Mr. Bidwell’s complaint, denying the allegations made against him and asserting that he was employed by Erlanger at all relevant times. Dr. Colburn similarly answered, denying the allegations made against him and that either EmCare Inc. or Envision Healthcare Corporation was his employer. Drs. Strait and Colburn then moved for summary judgment arguing that, pursuant to the Governmental Tort Liability Act, no judgment could be rendered against them because Mr. Bidwell had failed to name as a defendant their actual employer, Erlanger. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-20-310(b). Within ninety days of Dr. Strait’s and Dr. Colburn’s answers, Mr. Bidwell filed two motions for leave to amend his complaint to add Erlanger as a defendant. Mr. Bidwell relied on Tennessee Code Annotated section 20-1-119, which provides a plaintiff with a ninety-day “grace period” within which to amend a complaint when comparative fault “is or becomes an issue,” and section 29-26-121(a)(5), which he argued required the physician Defendants to notify him of Erlanger within thirty days of receiving pre-suit notice. The trial court granted Dr. Strait’s and Dr. Colburn’s motions for summary judgment, finding that Mr. Bidwell’s motions to amend were futile because he had not provided Erlanger with presuit notice. Mr. Bidwell appealed, and the Court of Appeals vacated the trial court’s orders granting summary judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings. Dr. Strait and Dr. Colburn subsequently filed an application for permission to appeal with this Court. We hold that, although the physician Defendants failed to comply with section Tennessee Code Annotated 29-26-121(a)(5), the statute provides no remedy for noncompliance, and their noncompliance does not constitute extraordinary cause sufficient to excuse Mr. Bidwell’s failure to provide Erlanger with pre-suit notice. However, we additionally hold that Dr. Strait’s and Dr. Colburn’s answers sufficiently asserted Erlanger’s comparative fault. Therefore, Mr. Bidwell was entitled to amend his complaint to name Erlanger as a defendant pursuant to section 20-1-119, so long as he amended his complaint and caused process to issue to Erlanger within ninety days of Dr. Strait’s answer—the first answer alleging Erlanger’s fault. Because section 20-1-119 applied, Mr. Bidwell was not obligated to provide Erlanger with pre-suit notice under Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-26-121(c). We conclude that, because the record on appeal reflects that Mr. Bidwell failed to file an amended complaint and cause process to issue, he is not entitled to amend his complaint to add Erlanger as a defendant. Accordingly, we affirm in part and reverse in part the judgment of the Court of Appeals on the grounds stated herein and reinstate the trial court’s orders granting the physician Defendants’ motions for summary judgment and denying the Plaintiff’s motions to amend.

Here is a link to the majority opinion:

Here is a link to Justice Lee's partial concurrence and dissent:

Here is Justice Kirby's concurrence:

NOTE: There is a lot going on in this opinion.  Taken down to its base element, it appears that the physician-employees were sued before the statute of limitations had expired but the hospital-employer was not, which meant the physicians could not be sued individually because the hospital happened to be a governmental entity, and also because the hospital was not added as a party-defendant within ninety days of an answer being filed as allowed by Tenn. Code Ann. sec. 20-1-119.  

Lastly, there are no consequences for when a defendant fails to notify a claimant of other potentially at-fault persons as required by Tenn. Code Ann. sec. 29-26-121(a)(5). 

Monday, January 18, 2021

New Health Care Liability Action Opinion: Trial Court’s Grant of Summary Judgment to the Defendant Upheld on Appeal in GTLA Case

The Tennessee Court of Appeals recently released its opinion in Williamson v. Regional One Health, No. W2019-02213-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 15, 2021).  The syllabus from the slip opinion reads:
In this healthcare liability action, Appellant/patient appeals the trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of Appellee/hospital. The trial court granted summary judgment based, inter alia, on its conclusion that Appellant failed to provide evidence that Appellee’s immunity under the Governmental Tort Liability Act is waived due to some action/inaction of its employee. Affirmed and remanded.
Here is a link to the slip opinion:

NOTE: This opinion offers a good explanation of Tennessee’s law on health care liability (formerly medical malpractice) as it intersects with its law on governmental tort liability.  It is worth the read if you handle these types of cases.