The Hamilton Firm

Retaliation under Title VII

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In Vance v. Ball State University, (June 24, 2013), the U.S. Supreme Court held that to prove a retaliation claim under Title VII, a plaintiff must show that the adverse action would not have occurred “but for” the employer’s improper retaliatory motive. The Court further held that to be considered a supervisor for purposes of workplace employer liability, the individual must have the power to hire, fire, fail to promote, reassign, or cause a significant change in benefits to the individual.

Recreational Use Statute

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In Wilson v. Dossett, 2013 Tenn.App. Lexis 389 (Tenn.Ct.App. June 13, 2013), the court addressed the applicability of TCA 70-7-102 to a case where the plaintiff suffered severe injuries in an accident while operating a motorcycle on a trail located on the defendant’s property.  The reviewing court held that TCA 70-7-102 protected the defendant from liability because the plaintiff was engaged in recreational activities on the defendant’s property.

TCA 70-7-102 provides:

(a) The landowner, lessee, occupant, or any person in control of land or premises owes no duty of care to keep such land or premises safe for entry or use by others for such recreational activities as hunting, fishing, trapping, camping, water sports, white water rafting, canoeing, hiking, sightseeing, animal riding, bird watching, dog training, boating, caving, fruit and vegetable picking for the participant’s own use, nature and historical studies and research, rock climbing, skeet and trap shooting, skiing, off-road vehicle riding, and cutting or removing wood for the participant’s own use, nor shall such landowner be required to give any warning of hazardous conditions, uses of, structures, or activities on such land or premises to any person entering on such land or premises for such purposes, except as provided in § 70-7-104.

In Wilson, the plaintiff unsuccessfully argued that the statute did not apply where the landowner created or maintained the propertywhich in this instance, consisted of launch ramps on the premises used by riders to jump their motorcycles.  The plaintiff’s injuries occurred while jumping a series of ramps, possibly constructed or built by the defendant.

The Plaintiff also argued that the statute only applied to the State of Tennessee.  The Court rejected said argument.

The Court held that the activity of riding a motorcycle “constituted recreational activity under the statute.”

The Court concluded as follows:

The facts of this case are troubling in that a young man received a severe injury while engaged in a recreational activity. However, our General Assembly made the policy decision with respect to liability, as it has the authority to do, by enacting Tenn. Code Ann. § 70-7-101 et seq. to provide a defense for landowners in circumstances such as  these. Wilson availed himself of Dossett’s property for the recreational purpose of riding a motorcycle. This activity falls squarely within the parameters of the statute’s protection for landowners. Additionally, there was no gross negligence in this case that would serve to negate the affirmative defense available to Dossett. When viewing the facts in the light most favorable to Wilson, we conclude, as did the Trial Court, that summary judgment is appropriate in this case. We affirm the judgment of the Trial Court.

Sudden Emergency Doctrine in Tennessee

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In Smith v. General Tire, 2013 Tenn.App. Lexis 364 (Tenn.Ct.App. May 30, 2013), the Tennessee Court of Appeals upheld summary judgment dismissing the plaintiff’s case where the defendant driver unexpectedly blacked out just prior to a collision. The defendant driver’s treating specialist opined that the defendant’s diabetic condition caused a “state of cognitive dysfunction” and that such condition was not foreseeable. Relying primarily on McCall v. Wilder, 913 S.W.2d 150 (Tenn. 1995), the Court affirmed the granting of summary judgment. McCall stands for the proposition that an unforeseeable sudden loss of consciousness or physical incapacity while driving is a defense to a negligence action. In any case involving this defense, the McCall case must be carefully examined.
If the trial court had refused to grant summary judgment, it seems unlikely that the decision would have been reversed (or even reviewed on interlocutory appeal) by the appellate court. Both sides had expert testimony, and there was some indication by the defendant that she had suffered episodes of “light-headedness” before the wreck. The question of whether the event was foreseeable is an objective, as opposed to subjective, determination.  Thus, such a determination would normally be a question for the jury. In this case, however, the trial court and reviewing court felt summary judgment was appropriate.

Joint and Several Liability in Tennessee

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Effective July 1, 2013, if multiple defendants are found liable in a civil action governed by comparative fault, each defendant is only liable for the percentage of fault allocated. No defendant will be held jointly liable for any damages; however, the doctrine of joint and several liability will still apply in civil conspiracy cases and in product liability actions based on strict liability and breach of warranty (among manufacturers).

Procedural issue precludes recovery against UM carrier

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Suit against a UM carrier in Tennessee can be complicated.  In Liput v. Grinder, 38 TAM 24-5 (2/27/2013), the plaintiff was injured while walking in a parking lot on November 10, 2009, when he was struck by a car operated by the tortfeasor. On July 14, 2010, the tortfeasor died of unrelated causes. Just prior to the one year anniversary of the incident, the plaintiff filed suit, and attempted service on the deceased tortfeasor.  The tortfeasor was obviously not served with the lawsuit.  The UM insurer was served and filed an Answer.  Thereafter, the plaintiff apparently learned of the tortfeasor’s death and filed a suggestion of death on March 31, 2011. After filing the suggestion of death, nothing happened until the UM insurer filed a motion for summary judgment on November 18, 2011. The trial court ruled in favor of the UM insurer because a law suit was never properly commenced against the proper defendant.

The reviewing court upheld the trial court’s dismissal of the case.

After outlining the facts of the case, the Court discussed TCA 20-5-103, which tolls the statute of limitation for the period of time between the death of the tortfeasor and appointment of the representative of the estate, up to 6 months.  The plaintiff did not serve a personal representative, and it is unknown if one actually existed.

Interestingly, the UM statute seemingly almost allowed the plaintiff’s cause of action to survive.  A direct action is permitted against a UM carrier where a return of summons states the defendant is “not to be found.”  For whatever reason, in this case, the summons was never returned to the Clerk of Court.  Whether or not the Court would have allowed the case to proceed as a direct action against the UM carrier if the return of summons had been filed with the Clerk is unknown; though the Court seems to give the argument a fair amount of weight.

And finally, the Court rejected the plaintiff’s contention that the UM insurer waived its argument with regard to service by failing to raise the defect as an affirmative defense.  The Court noted that other cases have not imposed such a requirement; and further noted that there was no evidence to suggest that the UM carrier knew of the tortfeasor’s death.

The harsh result reached in this case is unfortunate considering the facts.

Interestingly, the tortfeasor’s liability insurer settled the case for policy limits with the plaintiff about 3 weeks after the insured had died, but prior to the plaintiff filing the lawsuit.   Under the Tennessee UM statute, such a settlement would require the UM carrier to either allow the settlement and proceed to arbitration, or front the money to preserve the right to a jury trial.  I can’t help but think that the UM statute was not complied with in this case.  If there was compliance with the UM statute, it’s hard to imagine practically and legally how the UM carrier would have been able to get the case dismissed.

The Hamilton Firm: Recent Awards

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We are honored to have been listed in the Bar Register of Preeminent Lawyers by Martindale-Hubbell for the last few years based upon peer review ratings. We have also received the Client Distinction Award for the last three years. Less than 1% of the more than 900,000 attorneys listed on martindale.com and lawyers.com have been awarded this honor.

Contractual Statute of Limitation

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In Skaan v. Federal Express Corp, an opinion filed by the Court of Appeals of Tennessee at Jackson on December 13, 2012, the Court examined a contractual limitation provision in an employment contract.  The plaintiff filed a workers’ compensation claim and was eventually discharged from his employment.  Eight months after being termination, he filed a lawsuit for retaliatory discharge.  The defendant moved to dismiss the lawsuit by summary judgment based upon the following language found in the employment agreement:

“To the extent the law allows an employee to bring legal action against Federal Express Corporation, I agree to bring that complaint within the time prescribed by law or 6 months from the date of the event forming the basis of my lawsuit, whichever expires first.”

 In Tennessee, there is a “strong public policy in favor of upholding contracts. . . . absent fraud or duress, the law generally holds parties responsible for what they sign.”  The Court then ruled that a determination of whether the contract was enforceable was a question of law; and thus, an appropriate determination for summary judgment.

In Tennessee, parties may contract for a limitation period shorter than the period prescribed by law; though it must be reasonable.  The Court held that the contractual limitation period was enforceable, and thus, the plaintiff’s claim was dismissed.  The Court cited Morgan v. Town of Tellico Plains, 2002 WL 31429084 (Tenn.Ct.App. Oct. 30, 2002)(upholding a 60 day contractual limitation period) as support for the holding.

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