Supreme Court Opinions

Format: 07/28/2014
Format: 07/28/2014
Troy Mitchell v. Fayetteville Public Utilities
M2011-00410-SC-R3-WC
Authoring Judge: Justice Gary R. Wade
Trial Court Judge: Judge Franklin L. Russell

The trial court awarded workers’ compensation benefits to an injured lineman who had violated a rule requiring the use of protective gloves while in a bucket lift. The employer appealed, contending that the statutory defenses of willful misconduct and, more particularly, the willful failure or refusal to use a safety appliance or device precluded recovery. The appeal was referred to the Special Workers’ Compensation Appeals Panel for a hearing and a report of findings of fact and conclusions of law in accordance with Tennessee Code Annotated section 50-6-225(e)(3) (2008). After oral argument before the Panel, but before the Panel filed its opinion, the case was transferred to the full Court. Because the evidence establishes that the employee admitted his knowledge of a regularly enforced safety rule, understood the rationale for the rule, and willfully (rather than negligently or recklessly) failed to comply, the injuries he suffered because of the rule violation are not compensable. The judgment of the trial court is, therefore, reversed and the case is dismissed.
 

Lincoln County Supreme Court 05/08/12
Troy Mitchell v. Fayetteville Public Utilities - Dissent
M2011-00410-SC-R3-WC
Authoring Judge: Justice Janice M. Holder
Trial Court Judge: Judge Franklin L. Russell

Today the majority adopts Larson’s four-element test for applying the defenses of willful misconduct or willful failure to use a safety device. This test allows an employer to assert the defenses of willful misconduct or willful failure to use a safety device when four elements are satisfied: the employee has actual notice of the employer’s rule, the employee understands that the rule is in place for safety reasons, the employer consistently enforces the rule, and the employee has no valid excuse for violating the rule. I disagree with the majority that the application of Larson’s test compels the conclusion that Mr. Mitchell’s removal of his gloves was a willful failure to comply with his employer’s safety rule. The majority concludes that “[t]he lack of a valid excuse for the failure to use a safety appliance or device, when the first three elements [of Larson’s test] have been satisfied, amounts to willfulness.” Our case law compels a different conclusion.
 

Lincoln County Supreme Court 05/08/12
Earline Waddle v. Lorene B. Elrod
M2009-02142-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Chief Justice Cornelia A. Clark
Trial Court Judge: Chancellor Robert E. Corlew, III

In this appeal we must determine whether the Statute of Frauds, Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-2101(a)(4) (Supp.2011),applies to a settlement agreement requiring the transfer of an interest in real property; and, if so, whether emails exchanged by the parties’ attorneys satisfy the Statute of Frauds under the Uniform Electronic Transactions Act (“UETA”), Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 47-10-101 to -123 (2001 & Supp. 2011). We hold that the Statute of Frauds applies to settlement agreements requiring the transfer of an interest in real property and that the emails, along with a legal description of the propertycontained in the cross-claim, satisfy the Statute of Frauds. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals enforcing the settlement agreement.
 

Rutherford County Supreme Court 04/24/12
State of Tennessee v. Nelson Aguilar Gomez and Florinda Lopez
M2008-02737-SC-R11-CD
Authoring Judge: Justice Janice M. Holder
Trial Court Judge: Judge Cheryl A. Blackburn

A mother and father were jointly tried on two counts of felony murder and three counts of aggravated child abuse as a result of the death of their child. Only the mother testified in her own defense. During direct examination, the mother did not testify about prior incidents in which the father assaulted her. On cross-examination, father’s counsel asked the mother whether she believed the father was capable of “hurting” the victim. The trial court ruled sua sponte that counsel for the father had “opened the door” to cross-examination about the father’s assaults against the mother. The father was convicted of two counts of felony murder and three counts of aggravated child abuse, and the trial court merged the felony murder counts. The mother was convicted of two counts of facilitation of felony murder and two counts of aggravated child abuse, and the trial court merged the facilitation of felony murder counts. The Court of Criminal Appeals dismissed one aggravated child abuse count against the father but affirmed the ruling of the trial court in all other respects. Only the mother appealed. We hold that the evidence of prior assaults by the father was inadmissible and that the parties did not open the door to cross-examination about the father’s assaults against the mother. We reverse the mother’s conviction and remand the case for a new trial.
 

Davidson County Supreme Court 04/24/12
Cyrus Deville Wilson v. State of Tennessee
M2009-02241-SC-R11-CO
Authoring Judge: Justice Sharon G. Lee
Trial Court Judge: Judge Seth Norman

The primary issue presented in this appeal is whether a notation in the prosecutor’s file written by an assistant prosecutor expressing her opinion as to the lack of credibility of two of the State’s witnesses is newly discovered evidence on which the defendant may base a petition for writ of error coram nobis. Over fifteen years after the defendant’s conviction for first degree murder became final, he filed a petition for writ of error coram nobis alleging that he had recently discovered a note written by the assistant prosecutor before his murder trial in which she expressed her opinion that it was a “good case but for most of Ws are juveniles who have already lied repeatedly.” The petition alleged that the note was exculpatory, newly discovered evidence and that the State’s failure to produce it before trial affected the outcome of the trial and undermined the reliability of the verdict. The trial court tolled the one-year statute of limitations on due process grounds, but summarily dismissed the petition. On appeal, the Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the trial court’s dismissal of the defendant’s petition, concluding that the State had waived the statute of limitations defense by failing to raise it as an affirmative defense, and remanded the case for an evidentiary hearing. We hold that the State did not waive the statute of limitations defense and that the trial court did not err in tolling the statute of limitations. We further hold that the handwritten note expressing the assistant prosecutor’s opinion as to the witnesses’ credibility was attorney work product. As such, it was neither discoverable nor admissible. Accordingly, the note was not newly discovered evidence on which a petition for writ of error coram nobis could be based. The judgment of the Court of Criminal Appeals is reversed, and the judgment of the trial court dismissing the petition is reinstated.
 

Davidson County Supreme Court 04/20/12
Betty Saint Rogers v. Louisville Land Company et al.
E2010-00991-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice Sharon G. Lee
Trial Court Judge: Chancellor Jerri S. Bryant

In this appeal, the defendants seek a review of the trial court’s decision to award the plaintiff compensatory and punitive damages based on the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress arising out of inadequate maintenance of the cemetery where the plaintiff’s son was buried. To recover damages for intentional infliction of emotional distress, a plaintiff must prove that the defendant’s conduct was either intentional or reckless, was so outrageous that it is not tolerated by civilized society, and caused a serious mental injury to the plaintiff. The primary question presented is whether the plaintiff in this action proved the requisite serious mental injury to support the trial court’s award of compensatory and punitive damages. We hold that the plaintiff’s proof was deficient. The judgment of the Court of Appeals is affirmed.
 

Bradley County Supreme Court 04/19/12
Cheryl Brown Giggers et al. v. Memphis Housing Authority et al.
W2010-00806-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice Janice M. Holder
Trial Court Judge: Judge Kay S. Robilio

The plaintiffs, survivors of a tenant killed by the criminal act of another tenant, filed suit against the defendant housing authority. The plaintiffs alleged the housing authority was negligent in failing to evict the other tenant at the first instance of violent behavior. The housing authority filed a motion for summary judgment claiming federal regulations preempted the plaintiffs’ negligence claim and that it was immune from suit under the Tennessee Governmental Tort Liability Act (“the GTLA”). The trial court denied summary judgment. The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court. We granted review to determine whether the plaintiffs’ negligence claim is preempted by federal law or, in the alternative, whether the housing authority is immune from suit under the discretionary function exception of the GTLA. We conclude that the plaintiffs’ negligence suit is not preempted by federal law. We further conclude that the housing authority’s failure to evict is an operational decision and that the housing authority is not entitled to immunity under the GTLA. We reverse the Court of Appeals and remand this case to the trial court for further proceedings.
 

Shelby County Supreme Court 04/02/12
Discover Bank v. Joy A. Morgan
E2009-01337-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Chief Justice Cornelia A. Clark
Trial Court Judge: Judge Richard D. Vance

In this consumer protection case, we must determine which Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure applies to a motion that seeks relief from a default judgment of liability on a counter-complaint, where the motion has been filed within thirty days of entry of the default, the trial court has not expressly directed the entry of judgment on the counter-complaint pursuant to Rule 54.02, and neither liability on the original complaint nor damages on the counter-complaint have been determined. We hold that Rule 54.02, rather than Rule 60.02, applies in this situation; however, we also hold that the same test applies to motions seeking relief from default judgment, under either rule, on the basis of “excusable neglect.” We also hold that actual damages are recoverable for loss of available credit under Tennessee Code Annotated section 47-18-109(a)(2001) of the Tennessee Consumer Protection Act where the plaintiff suffers a demonstrable loss of credit, proximately caused by the defendant, resulting in actual harm. For these reasons, we affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals upholding the default judgment, vacating the award of damages, and remanding the case to the trial court for a new hearing on the amount of damages.
 

Sevier County Supreme Court 03/27/12
Allstate Insurance Company v. Diana Lynn Tarrant et al. - Dissent
E2009-02431-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice William C. Koch, Jr.
Trial Court Judge: Chancellor Telford Forgety

We granted the Tenn. R. App. P. 11 application in this case to determine whether an insured,who requested replacementinsurancecoverageonhispersonalandbusiness vehicles in order to reduce his premiums, is entitled to more coverage than that provided in his new personal policy when he failed to read the amended policy declarations and to notify the insurance company that he desired different coverage on one of his vehicles. Applying settled legal principles to the essentially undisputed facts of this case, I would hold that the insured accepted the new coverage by failing to review the amended policy declarations and to give the insurance company timely notice that the coverage was less than he desired.
 

Sevier County Supreme Court 03/26/12
Allstate Insurance Company v. Diana Lynn Tarrant et al.
E2009-02431-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice Sharon G. Lee
Trial Court Judge: Chancellor Telford Forgety

After an automobile accident between the insured’s van and a motorcycle, the insurer filed a declaratory judgment action to determine whether the van was covered under a commercial policy with a liability limit of $500,000 or a personal policy with liability limits of $100,000 per person and $300,000 per accident. The insurer alleged that before the accident the insured had instructed his insurance agent to transfer the van from the commercial policy to the personal policy. The insured denied this and alleged that he had instructed the agent to retain the van on the commercial policy. The trial court ruled that because the insurer had sent the insured a letter and premium bills showing the change in coverage and the insured had paid the bills without objection, he had ratified the transfer and the van was covered under the personal policy. The Court of Appeals reversed. We hold that the action of the insurance agent in transferring the van to the personal policy was not subject to ratification by the insured because the insurance agent was not acting in the insured’s stead or for his benefit when it made the transfer. We further hold that the insurer is estopped from denying coverage under the commercial policy. We affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals, although on different grounds.
 

Sevier County Supreme Court 03/26/12
SNPCO, Inc. v. City of Jefferson City et al.
E2009-02355-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice William C. Koch, Jr.
Trial Court Judge: Judge John D. McAfee

This appeal involves the question of whether a city’s ordinance banning the sale of fireworks within its city limits implicates Tenn. Code Ann. § 13-7-208(b) (Supp. 2008) which permits pre-existing nonconforming businesses to continue to operate despite a “zoning change.” After the Cityof Jefferson Cityannexed the propertyon which a fireworks retailer’s business was located, the retailer filed suit in the Circuit Court for Jefferson County seeking compensation for a regulatory taking or, in the alternative, for a declaration that Tenn. Code Ann. § 13-7-208(b) permitted it to continue to sell fireworks. The trial court dismissed the retailer’s complaint in accordance with Tenn. R. Civ. P. 12.02(6), and the Court of Appeals affirmed. SNPCO, Inc. v. City of Jefferson City, No. E2009-02355-COA-R3-CV, 2010 WL 4272744, at *11 (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 29, 2010). We granted the retailer’s Tenn. R. App. P. 11 application to clarify the application of the “substantial interference” test in Cherokee Country Club, Inc. v. City of Knoxville, 152 S.W.3d 466 (Tenn. 2004) to ordinances such as the one involved in this case. We have determined that our decision in Cherokee Country Club, Inc. v. City of Knoxville requires consideration of both the terms and effects of the challenged ordinance. Thus, the courts must first determine whether the challenged ordinance relates to the city’s “general plan of zoning.” If the courts determine that the challenged ordinance relates to the city’s general plan of zoning, then, and only then, may the courts ascertain whether the ordinance results in a “substantial interference” with the use of land. Based on this record, we have determined that Jefferson City’s challenged ordinance banning the sale of fireworks within its city limits is not related to the city’s general plan of zoning. Accordingly, we affirm the judgments of the courts below.
 

Jefferson County Supreme Court 03/26/12
State of Tennessee v. Jason Lee White
M2009-00941-SC-R11-CD
Authoring Judge: Justice Gary R. Wade
Trial Court Judge: Judge Michael R. Jones

After robbing a Clarksville restaurant, the defendant was indicted for burglary, aggravated robbery, and especially aggravated kidnapping. A jury convicted the defendant on all three counts, after which he filed a motion to set aside the conviction for especially aggravated kidnapping as violative of due process, relying on State v. Anthony, 817 S.W.2d 299 (Tenn. 1991). The trial court denied the motion and sentenced the defendant to an effective twenty-five year term. The Court of Criminal Appeals reversed and dismissed the conviction for especially aggravated kidnapping on due process grounds. This Court granted the State’s application for permission to appeal. Following briefing and oral argument, we ordered additional briefing and argument addressing the application of due process principles to dual convictions for kidnapping and an accompanying felony, such as rape or robbery. We hold that the legislature did not intend for the kidnapping statutes to apply to the removal or confinement of a victim that is essentially incidental to an accompanying felony, such as rape or robbery. This inquiry, however, is a question for the jury after appropriate instructions, which appellate courts review under the sufficiency of the evidence standard as the due process safeguard. Because the defendant is entitled to a new trial with specific instructions as to the especially aggravated kidnapping charge, the cause is remanded to the trial court for further proceedings in accordance with this opinion.
 

Montgomery County Supreme Court 03/09/12
State of Tennessee v. Nigel Kavic Watkins
M2009-00348-SC-R11-CD
Authoring Judge: Chief Justice Cornelia A. Clark
Trial Court Judge: Judge John Wootten

We granted the State permission to appeal to determine whether the defendant’s dual convictions for reckless homicide and aggravated child abuse violate either the federal or state constitutional prohibition against double jeopardy. Following briefing, oral argument, and a careful study of Tennessee law governing the issue presented, we ordered the parties in this appeal, and two other pending appeals involving related issues, to submit additional briefs addressing certain specific questions concerning the analyses that Tennessee courts apply in single prosecution cases when determining whether separate convictions under different statutes constitute the same offense for purposes of the double jeopardy protection against multiple punishments. We also scheduled consolidated reargument of these three appeals and invited certain prosecutorial and defense organizations to submit amicus curiae briefs. Having thoroughly reviewed relevant federal and state precedent and carefully considered the briefs provided by the parties and by the amici curiae, we have concluded that the four-factor test set forth in State v. Denton, 938 S.W.2d 373 (Tenn. 1996) should be abandoned. Furthermore, we have not found, nor have we been provided with, any textual reason or historical basis for interpreting the Double Jeopardy Clause of the Tennessee Constitution differently from the Double Jeopardy Clause of the United States Constitution. Accordingly, we adopt the same elements test enunciated in Blockburger v. United States, 284 U.S. 299, 304 (1932) as the test for determining whether multiple convictions under different statutes constitute the same offense for purposes of the Double Jeopardy Clause of the Tennessee Constitution. Applying this test, we conclude that reckless homicide and aggravated child abuse are not the same offense because their elements differ. Thus, the defendant’s dual convictions do not violate either the federal or the state constitutional double jeopardy prohibition. Accordingly, we reverse that portion of the Court of Criminal Appeals’ judgment merging the reckless homicide conviction into the aggravated child abuse conviction, and we reinstate the reckless homicide conviction. However, we affirm that portion of the Court of Criminal Appeals’ judgment remanding this matter to the trial court for resentencing.

Smith County Supreme Court 03/09/12