Supreme Court Opinions

Format: 11/26/2014
Format: 11/26/2014
Donna Clark v. Sputniks, LLC et al.
M2010-02163-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice Sharon G. Lee
Trial Court Judge: Judge C. L. Rogers

In these consolidated cases, the primary issue is whether there is liability insurance coverage for the plaintiffs’ injuries resulting from an altercation on the premises of the insured’s bar and restaurant. The insurer denied coverage and declined to defend the insured based on its determination that there was no coverage under the terms of the policy. We hold that based on the clear terms of the policy agreement, there is no liability coverage because the incident arose from an assault and battery, which was an excluded cause, and because there is no nonexcluded concurrent cause to provide coverage. We further hold that estoppel by judgment does not apply to collaterally estop the insurer from arguing the lack of coverage. The judgment of the trial court is reversed.
 

Sumner County Supreme Court 05/30/12
State of Tennessee v. Hubert Glenn Sexton
E2008-00292-SC-DDT-DD
Authoring Judge: Justice Gary R. Wade
Trial Court Judge: Judge E. Shayne Sexton

The defendant, tried and convicted of two counts of first degree murder, was sentenced to death for each offense. The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed. In our review, we have found that the trial court erred by admitting detailed evidence of a prior claim of child sex abuse and by allowing references to the defendant’s refusal to submit to a polygraph examination. Further, the record demonstrates several instances of prosecutorial misconduct during the opening statement and during the final arguments of both the guilt and penalty phases of the trial. Because, however, the defendant admitted to at least three witnesses that he committed the murders and the evidence of guilt was otherwise overwhelming, the errors had no effect on the verdicts rendered at the conclusion of the guilt phase of the trial. Each of the convictions is, therefore, affirmed. Nevertheless, because certain of the inadmissible evidence was particularly inflammatory and the prosecution made several inappropriate comments, the sentences of death must be set aside. The Court of Criminal Appeals is, in consequence, affirmed in part and reversed in part. The cause is remanded to the trial court for new sentencing hearings.
 

Scott County Supreme Court 05/29/12
Danny A. Stewart v. Derrick D. Schofield, Commissioner, Tennessee Department of Correction, et al.
M2010-01808-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Chief Justice Cornelia A. Clark
Trial Court Judge: Chancellor Carol L. McCoy

We accepted this appeal to clarify the procedures an inmate must follow to dispute the determination of parole eligibility when the inmate is serving consecutive determinate sentences imposed pursuant to the Criminal Sentencing Reform Act of 1989 (“1989 Act”). See Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 40-35-101 to -505 (2010 & Supp. 2011). We clarify that the Uniform Administrative Procedures Act (“UAPA”) governs an inmate’s challenge to the Tennessee Department of Correction’s (“TDOC”) calculation of a release eligibility date. See Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 4-5-101 to -325 (2011). Under the UAPA, an inmate must request a declaratory order from TDOC before filing a declaratory action in court. Tenn. Code Ann. § 4-5-225(b). Petitioner failed to seek a declaratory order from TDOC; thus, the trial court properly dismissed his petition for common law writ of certiorari naming TDOC and TDOC officials. The UAPA does not govern an inmate’s challenge to a decision of the Tennessee Board of Probation and Parole (“Board”) concerning parole. Tenn. Code Ann. § 4-5-106(c). Rather, the petition for common law writ of certiorari is the procedural vehicle for bringing such challenges. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 27-8-101 (2000). While Petitioner also named the Board and Board officials in his petition for common law writ of certiorari, the trial court properly granted their motions to dismiss because the allegations of the petition fail to state a claim on which relief may be granted. The method for calculating release eligibility and custodial parole discussed in Howell v. State, 569 S.W.2d 428 (Tenn. 1978) is not applicable to inmates sentenced pursuant to the 1989 Act and serving consecutive determinate sentences for parole-eligible offenses. Accordingly, the judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed, and the judgment of the chancery court dismissing the petition is reinstated.
 

Davidson County Supreme Court 05/25/12
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