Category Archives: General

Tennessee trial judges must explain why they are granting or denying a motion for summary judgment.

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In a unanimous opinion today (7/15/14), Mary C. Smith v. UHS of Lakeside, Inc. the Tennessee Supreme Court has determined that the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure require trial judges to explain why they are granting or denying a motion for summary judgment before they ask the lawyer for the winning party to prepare a proposed order.

Motions for summary judgment are requests by one or more parties to a lawsuit for the court to rule on the merits of an issue before a case goes to trial. The court can determine prior to the start of a trial that there is no genuine issue of material fact and all or a portion of the case will come to an end.

In the specific case the Court decided today, Mary C. Smith sued UHS of Lakeside, Inc. in the Shelby County Circuit Court following the death of her husband who had been treated at the Lakeside Triage Center in September 2004. UHS filed motions for summary judgment asking the trial court to dismiss Ms. Smith’s lawsuit. During hearings in March 2010 and September 2011, the trial judge orally granted UHS’s motions but did not explain the basis for her decisions. Instead, the trial judge asked UHS’s lawyer to draft orders that provided the legal basis for her decisions. The trial judge signed the orders prepared by UHS’s lawyer despite Ms. Smith’s objections.

Ms. Smith appealed, and the Court of Appeals set aside the summary judgment orders. The Court of Appeals decided the trial court failed to comply with Rule 56 of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure, which requires trial courts to “state the legal grounds” when deciding a motion for summary judgment.

The Supreme Court agreed that the trial court failed to comply with Rule 56. The Court emphasized that deciding a motion for summary judgment is a high judicial function. The requirement that a trial court state its grounds promotes respect for the judicial system by ensuring that a summary judgment decision is the product of the trial court’s own independent analysis.

The Court held that the trial court erred by granting UHS’s motions for summary judgment without providing legal grounds and by asking UHS’s lawyers to supply the orders that articulated the reasons for the court’s decision. The Court concluded the trial court must, “upon granting or denying a motion for summary judgment … state the grounds for its decision before it invites or requests the prevailing party to draft a proposed order.”

In this case, the Court determined the contested orders were not the product of the trial court’s independent judgment, therefore the case was returned to the trial court for further proceedings.

Drastic Cuts in Tennessee Workers’ Compensation Benefits Coming For Accidents After July 1st:

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Governor Haslam’s Workers’ Compensation Reform Bill goes into full effect in Tennessee on July 1st and applies to any worker injured after June 30th.

  • Insurance companies will have even more opportunity to deny coverage based on pre-existing conditions.  The law now provides that all injuries must arise “primarily out of and in the course and scope of employment,” so the injured worker must prove that the employment “contributed more than 50% in causing the injury, considering all causes.”
  • Permanent partial disability (PPD) benefits, which are supposed to provide compensation for future earnings loss due to an injury, will be dramatically scaled back.  PPD awards will be based solely on the impairment rating, multiplied by 450 weeks:
    • An injured worker with a 5% impairment rating will receive only 22.5 weeks of benefits for PPD.
    • If he or she does not return to work, or returns to work earning less, only marginal increases of 1.35 to 1.45 times the impairment rating are available.  For example, a worker with a 5% rating who can’t return to work might be entitled to 30 to 32.6 weeks of benefits.

Thankfully, there is an “escape” clause in the new law that will allow for much larger PPD awards up to 450 weeks for a few workers, if at least three of four factors are proven:

  • Limited education
  • 55 or older
  • No transferable job skills
  • No reasonable employment opportunities locally.

For most workers, however, benefits for permanent disability will be very limited, no matter how devastating the effect of a serious injury is on his or her ability to earn a living in the future.

Better workers compensation benefits may be available through Georgia:

Georgia law may provide better benefits to an injured worker than Tennessee, and in some situations a claim can be filed in either state.  If the accident occurred in Georgia there may be jurisdiction in Georgia.  Even if the accident occurred outside Georgia, if the worker was hired in Georgia and the employer has a place of business there or if the worker lives in Georgia, the claim can be brought in Georgia.

If there is any possibility of dual jurisdiction in Georgia, call us.

Workers injured on the job should not blindly accept an insurance company’s decision to handle a workers compensation case as a Tennessee case.  If there might be jurisdiction in Georgia, call us immediately!

Here are just two examples of dual jurisdiction in Tennessee and Georgia:

  • A Tennessee company that routinely sends service technicians into Georgia to serve or repair equipment, such as heat and air units, industrial machinery or plumbing may be subject to Georgia workers compensation law if the accident occurs in Georgia.
  • A Tennessee trucking company that hires workers through its terminal in Georgia will be subject to Georgia workers compensation laws regardless of where the accident occurs.

Tennessee Supreme Court confirms that a plaintiff can add a defendant under T.C.A. § 20-1-119 even when the plaintiff was aware of the added defendant’s fault before the statute of limitations expired.

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In a unanimous opinion, Michael S. Becker et al v. Ford Motor Co., M2013-02546-SC-R23-CV, the Tennessee Supreme Court has held that T.C.A. § 20-1-119 allows a plaintiff to add a defendant whose involvement was raised by the original defendant, even when the plaintiff was aware of the new defendant before the statute of limitations expired.

The case involves Michael Becker, who was riding in a truck driven by his son when the truck hit a light pole. Mr. Becker was injured and filed a lawsuit in Hamilton County against Ford Motor Company, the manufacturer of the truck. Ford removed the case to federal court. Then, in its answer to Mr. Becker’s complaint, Ford named the son as the person who caused the accident.

Mr. Becker asked the federal court for permission to amend his complaint to add his son as an additional defendant. By this time, the legal deadline for filing the suit had passed. However, a state law allows plaintiffs to file suit against new defendants who are named by the original defendant, despite the expiration of the statute of limitations.

The federal court was unsure whether Mr. Becker could add his son as a defendant because Mr. Becker was previously aware of his son’s involvement in the accident. Accordingly, the federal court turned to the Tennessee Supreme Court, asking whether the state law only applied to defendants who were unknown to the plaintiff prior to the expiration of the statute of limitations.

Interpreting T.C.A. § 20-1-119, the Supreme Court held that the law’s plain language does not require that the new defendant be unknown to the plaintiff prior to the expiration of the statute of limitations. Mr. Becker was therefore permitted to file suit against the son.  While suing one’s son is unusual, this case is important as a plaintiff may choose, for many reasons, not to name another person who might be at fault as a defendant in his or her original lawsuit.

Annual Report of the Judiciary Shows Decline in Jury Awards in Tennessee Damage/Tort Cases

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The Annual Report of the Judiciary recently released data concerning the disposition of damage/tort cases in Tennessee for 2013.  Of the more than 10,000 damage/tort cases concluded in 2013, only 4% went to trial, with 2% tried by a jury.  The average monetary award decreased significantly last year, representing the second lowest average in over 20 years.  Of the 438 cases that were tried last year, 151 of those cases resulted in no recovery for the plaintiff.

These numbers illustrate the importance of having experienced, aggressive counsel in personal injury cases.  It is important to have the right attorney, one has the knowledge, expertise and resources to take the case to trial, if necessary, rather than having an attorney who is just is looking for a quick and easy settlement.  Plucking low hanging fruit is easy – that is what the attorneys who advertise on TV do. On the other hand, preparing a serious injury case for trial is a serious undertaking, and it requires the highest levels of commitment, creativity and competence on the part of the trial lawyer.  At The Hamilton Firm we strive to provide just such representation to our clients and their families.  We prepare for trial, not just for settlement.

Hu Hamilton’s Comments in Opposition to the Proposed Changes to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure

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Hubert Hamilton recently posted (2/6/14) the following comment to Regulations.gov concerning the proposed changes to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, particularly as to the dramatic limitations on the scope of discovery as well as shortening the time to complete service of process:

“These changes seem designed to tilt the playing in favor of defendants in personal injury cases. The proposed changes appear to ignore the fact that the plaintiff bears the burden of proof, and often starts a case at a substantial disadvantage, with little or no access to critical documents and records.

I have been a trial lawyer for over 37 years. While most of my cases are filed in various state courts, sometimes they are removed to Federal Court, and from time to time I do file suits in Federal Court. Plaintiffs bear the burden of proof so we generally need to send more written discovery, to seek production of more documents from the defendants than the defendants seek from the plaintiff, and we have to take more depositions. Imposing an arbitrarily low limit on written discovery and on the number of depositions only helps defendants.

In a case we recently settled four men were injured. The defendants had virtually all of the documents and records relevant to the cause of the fire. There were dozens of persons having knowledge of the cause of the fire, failure to warn and so forth. To find out what those persons knew and whether that knowledge was important was going to require us to take at least 10 to 15 discovery depositions, which is a typical number in such cases. Fortunately, the case was settled at mediation before proceeding with the first round of depositions. To identify all those persons, we had served more than 15 interrogatories, which were essential in determining who to depose. Arbitrarily limiting interrogatories to 15, and depositions to 5, would have severely handicapped us in the prosecution of the case.

Keep in mind that depositions are expensive and time consuming, so plaintiffs’ personal injury lawyers typically self-limit both the number and length of depositions. We work on a contingency fee and advance all the expenses. There is no need to impose arbitrarily low limits. The proposed limit of 5 depositions also ignores the fact that in a personal injury case the plaintiff often has to take the depositions of treating physicians for evidence at trial. So at least one, and perhaps more, of those 5 depositions could be taken up by deposing treating physicians for proof.

On a trucking case we recently filed, we requested a waiver of service under Rule 4(d). But, we are not sure the addresses provided on the police report are accurate. The defendants have a minimum of 30 days to return the waivers (Rule 4(d)(1)(F)). If they don’t return the waivers, or if the addresses turn out to be inaccurate, we would have less than 30 days to get service perfected under the proposed change to Rule 4(m). That would discourage us from using Rule 4(d). 60 days is way too short a period for perfecting service. Dismissing the case if service was not perfected in 60 days would just force a do-over, and impose additional burdens and expense on the plaintiff.

The proposed changes to Rule 26(b)(1) represent a fundamental shift away from the current standards for discovery and that shift will overwhelmingly favor defendants over plaintiffs in personal injury cases. Plaintiffs start at a disadvantage in litigation with trucking companies and other corporate defendants. Often we don’t know what we don’t know. We have to engage in the discovery process to discover relevant evidence. A critical piece of evidence can exist in the defendants’ records, but the plaintiff won’t know it until all the relevant records and documents are produced.

How can a court determine “the importance of the discovery in resolving the issue” (Factor 4) without knowing what is in the records and documents? The plaintiff cannot effectively argue that unproduced records and documents are important without knowing what they are. And the proposed rule change could actually open up new areas for discovery. Are the plaintiff and the court just supposed to take the defendant’s word about its “resources” (Factor 3)? Shouldn’t the plaintiff be able to conduct further discovery to test the defendant’s assertion that its resources are limited and it can’t afford to comply with the proposed discovery?

Certainly there are very complex document intensive cases where proportionality needs to be given consideration, and appropriate limits placed on the scope of discovery, considering the factors listed in the proposed rule change. But it would be much better to retain the traditional relevancy standard for discovery, while providing defendants some mechanism upon good cause shown in appropriate cases, to invoke a review by the court based on a proportionality standard. The proposed changes to Rule 26 will invite abuse and encourage delay, and just give defendants more excuses to avoid producing important documents and records.

I strongly oppose the changes to the discovery rules, particularly to Rules 26, 30, 31 33 and 36, as well as shortening time to perfect service under Rule 4.”

Tennessee Supreme Court Eases One Pre-suit Procedural Requirement for Bringing Medical Malpractice Claims.

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Although the plaintiff ultimately lost the appeal, the Tennessee Supreme Court has granted some small relief from the onerous pre-suit procedural requirements of Tennessee’s 2011 healthcare liability law holding that only substantial compliance with the provision directing a plaintiff to furnish potential defendants with a medical authorization will be required, Stevens v. Hickman Community Health Care Services, Inc. No. M2012-00582-SC-S09-CV (11/25/13).  However the plaintiff, a widow in a wrongful death action, gave proper pre-suit notice, but failed to provide any authorization other than her own for release of the records, and therefore failed to even substantially comply.

 

“Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-26-121(a) establishes six separate requirements that serve related yet ultimately distinct goals. First, Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-26-122(a)(1) contains an express notice requirement that requires plaintiffs to give defendants written notice that a potential healthcare liability claim may be forthcoming. In contrast, Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 29-26-122(a)(2)(A)-(C) facilitate early resolution of healthcare liability claims by requiring plaintiffs to advise defendants who the plaintiff is, how to reach him or her, and how to contact his or her attorney. Lastly, the requirements of Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-26-121(a)(2)(D) and Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-26-121(a)(2)(E) serve an investigatory function, equipping defendants with the actual means to evaluate the substantive merits of a plaintiff’s claim by enabling early discovery of potential co-defendants and early access to a plaintiff’s medical records.”

 

“A plaintiff’s less-than-perfect compliance with Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-26-121(a)(2)(E), however, should not derail a healthcare liability claim. Non-substantive errors and omissions will not always prejudice defendants by preventing them from obtaining a plaintiff’s relevant medical records. Thus, we hold that a plaintiff must substantially comply, rather than strictly comply, with the requirements of Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-26-121(a)(2)(E).”

 

Tennessee Supreme Court Addresses Damages

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We entrust the responsibility of resolving questions of disputed fact, including the assessment of damages, to the jury. An award of damages, which is intended to make a plaintiff whole, compensates the plaintiff for damage or injury caused by a defendant’s wrongful conduct.  A plaintiff may be compensated for any economic or pecuniary losses that naturally result from the defendant’s wrongful conduct.  Economic damages include out-of-pocket medical expenses, future medical expenses, lost wages, and lost earning potential. The plaintiff bears the burden of proving damages to such a degree that, while perhaps not mathematically precise, will allow the jury to make a reasoned assessment of the plaintiff’s injury and loss.

A plaintiff is also entitled to recover compensatory damages for non-economic loss or injury. “Non-economic damages include pain and suffering, permanent impairment and/or disfigurement, and loss of enjoyment of life.” Damages for pain and suffering are awarded for the physical and mental suffering that accompany an injury. Damages awarded for loss of enjoyment of life are intended to compensate a plaintiff for the impairment of the ability to enjoy the normal pleasures of living. Assigning a compensable, monetary value to non-economic damages can be difficult. The assessment of non-economic damages is not an exact science, nor is there a precise mathematical formula to apply in determining the amount of damages an injured party has incurred.  Thus, a plaintiff is generally not required to prove the monetary value of non-economic damages.

Meals v. Ford Motor Company, 2013 Tenn. Lexis 702 (Tenn. Aug. 30, 2013)(Citations omitted throughout)

Does O.C.G.A. § 51-12-33 allow apportionment of fault to an unidentified contractor?

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The Georgia Supreme Court has held that O.C.G.A. § 51-12-33 does allow apportionment of fault to an unidentified criminal assailant, Couch v. Red Roof Inns, Inc., 291 Ga. 359, 361 (2012).  But the Defendant must produce competent evidence of negligence and causation on the part of the nonparty before the jury can consider apportioning fault to a nonparty.  See Union Carbide Corp. v. Fields, 315 Ga. App. 554 (2012), where the Court of Appeals held that:

“ . . . the fault of a nonparty cannot be considered for the purposes of apportioning damages without some competent evidence that the nonparty in fact ‘contributed to the alleged injury or damages’” (Emphasis supplied)

315 Ga. App. at 559.

In a premises liability case, the owner of the property will often blame the contractor who built the defective stairs, ramp, etc.  However, in a Georgia case, where the Defendant cannot identify the contractor, or cannot prove what the contractor undertook to do, or cannot produce a contract defining the scope of the work, it is difficult to see how a Defendant can present competent evidence of nonparty fault.   

New Procedure for Settlement Demands to Insurance Companies Now in Effect in Georgia

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For Georgia motor vehicle wreck cases arising after July 1, 2013, a new procedure is now in effect which was designed to give insurance companies adequate but not unreasonable time to respond to a pre-suit settlement demand by an injured party without being subjected to a subsequent bad faith claim for failing to settle the case within policy limits.  

The new Code Section, O.C.G.A. § 9-11-67.1, provides a minimum of 30 days for a defendant (or his liability insurance company) to respond to a settlement offer made before suit is filed, in case arising from the use of a motor vehicle.  The new law allow the insurance adjuster “to seek clarification regarding terms, liens, subrogation claims, standing to release claims, medical bills, medical records, and other relevant facts,” without that being deemed a counteroffer.  The demand must be sent by “certified mail or statutory overnight delivery, return receipt requested” and shall specifically reference the new Code section.  This new procedure applies only in personal injury or death cases arising from the use of a motor vehicle.  Lawyers should exercise caution in making settlement demands under the new procedure, to ensure compliance, and to preserve a possible bad faith claim against the liability insurer if it refuses to pay the claim in the amount demanded.

Click here to review the complete text of the new law.

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.

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