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Sunday, October 31, 2021

New Tennessee Claims Commission Case: Summary Judgment for the State Upheld on Appeal

The Tennessee Court of Appeals has released its opinion in Victory v. State, No. M2020-01610-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 29, 2021).  The syllabus from the slip opinion reads:

This appeal arises from an action before the Tennessee Claims Commission for personal injuries filed on behalf of a minor child who broke her arm when she fell from playground equipment at Tims Ford State Park. The complaint asserted claims for negligence, gross negligence, and gross negligence per se. It alleged that the State was negligent by failing to adequately maintain its property, and by failing to discover, rectify, and/or warn against a dangerous condition, and allowing park visitors “to use the playground which did not have a safe surface area.” The State denied liability under Tenn. Code Ann. § 9-8- 307(a)(1)(C), insisting it had no notice of any dangerous condition; it also raised the “Recreational Use Statute,” Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 70-7-101 to -105, as an affirmative defense. Following discovery, the State filed a motion for summary judgment, which the claims commissioner granted. The commissioner found the State was entitled to judgment as a matter of law on two grounds. The commissioner found that Tenn. Code Ann. § 70-7- 102 of the Recreational Use Statute provided immunity to the State as a landowner against premises-liability claims and that the gross negligence exception under the statute, Tenn. Code Ann. § 70-7-104(a)(1), did not apply. The commissioner also held that the claimants failed to show that notice of the alleged dangerous condition had been provided to the State, which is an essential element of the Claims Commission Act. The plaintiffs appeal one issue, asserting a genuine issue of material fact existed concerning whether the State’s failure to maintain the playground was gross negligence. We affirm the Commissioner’s decision on both grounds. 

Here is a link to the opinion:

NOTE: This opinion is an all-too-common reminder of the harsh effects of the Tennessee Recreational Use Statute [hereinafter Act] because it provides immunity to landowners and leaves persons who have been injured due to negligence uncompensated.  See Victory v. State, No. M2020-01610-COA-R3-CV, slip. op., passim (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 29, 2021).

This opinion also offers up a good explanation of gross negligence under the Act. Id. at 4.   

Lastly, the opinion reminds us of an important point regarding appellate practice, to wit:

     The State also argues that we should affirm the Commissioner’s decision because the Commissioner provided two independent grounds for summary judgment, and Plaintiffs appealed only one. “Tennessee law . . . provide[s] that where a trial court provides more than one separate and independent ground for its judgment and a party fails to appeal one or more of the independent grounds, we must affirm the judgment of the trial court on the ground that was not challenged on appeal.” Buckley v. Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, Inc., No. M2020-00804-COA-R10-CV, 2021 WL 2450456, at *12 (Tenn. Ct. App. June 16, 2021) (citations omitted)[, perm. app. denied (Tenn. Oct. 14, 2021)]. 

     In addition to finding insufficient evidence of gross negligence, the Commissioner determined that Plaintiffs failed to establish an essential element of their claim under § 9- 8-307(a)(1)(C) of the Claims Commission Act because there was no evidence that the proper state official had been given notice of the playground’s condition. Plaintiff did not appeal this finding. Accordingly, we are compelled to affirm the Commissioner on this ground as well. 

Id. at 5. 

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