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Saturday, June 04, 2022

A Tenn. Claims Commission-Case Consolidated with a Governmental Tort Liability Act-Case in Circuit Court: Trial Court's Denial of State's Motion for Summary Judgment Upheld on Appeal Due to State's Nondelegable Duty to Inspect and Maintain State Highways

The Tennessee Court of Appeals has released its opinion in Polhamus v. State, No. E2021-01253-COA-R9-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. June 2, 2022). The opinion's syllabus reads:

This case arises from a single-vehicle motorcycle accident at the intersection of State Route 1 and State Route 36 within the city limits of Kingsport, Tennessee. The cyclist contends the accident was caused by the failure of the State of Tennessee and the City of Kingsport to properly maintain the state highways; specifically, he alleges that their failure to repair a pothole caused the accident. The plaintiff filed a claim against the State with the Tennessee Division of Claims Administration, and shortly thereafter he commenced this action against the City in the Sullivan County Circuit Court. The claim against the State was later transferred and consolidated with the action against the City. Both the State and the City claimed immunity and moved for summary judgment. The State asserted that it had immunity because the City contractually agreed to maintain the highways where the accident occurred. The City asserted that it had immunity because the State owned the highways where the accident occurred. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the City upon the finding the City had immunity because it did not “own” the state highways; however, it denied the State’s motion because “[t]o hold that both the State and the City [were] immune from suit would be against public policy.” We granted this interlocutory appeal to address whether the State owed a duty to the plaintiff even though it contracted with the City to maintain the highways where the plaintiff’s accident occurred. Having closely reviewed the State’s contract with the City of Kingsport, we find nothing in the contract or in Tennessee Code Annotated §§ 54-5-201 and -203 that authorizes the State to delegate its responsibilities under § 9-8-307(a)(1)(I) “to exercise reasonable care under all the attendant circumstances in . . . maintaining the State system of highways” and (J) for “[d]angerous conditions on state maintained highways.” On the contrary, and as § 54-5-201 expressly provides, “the state’s obligation for maintenance of its system of highways shall be governed by those limitations now set out by law, it being the intent of this section neither to enlarge nor to diminish present obligations for this maintenance.” Because the State bears the ultimate responsibility for inspecting and maintaining state highways, we find the contract did not absolve the State of potential liability for failing to do so. Therefore, we affirm the trial court’s decision.

The slip opinion can be found at this link:

NOTE: This opinion is one of the rare ones discussing the state's liability under the Claims Commissions Act and how that interacts with a municipality's liability under the Governmental Tort Liability Act.  It discusses the state's liability due to a nondelegable statutory duty imposed on it "to inspect and maintain state highways." Polhamus, No. E2021-01253-COA-R9-CV, slip op. at 7. A must-read decision for any lawyer who handles these types of cases.

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