Supreme Court Reverses Award of Damages for Lack of Cemetery Upkeep

April 19, 2012

The Tennessee Supreme Court today reversed a trial court’s award of damages because the plaintiff had failed to prove that she had suffered a serious mental injury in her claim based on intentional infliction of emotional distress due to poor maintenance of a cemetery. 

In 2001, Betty Saint Rogers’ son died and was buried at the Fort Hill Cemetery in Cleveland, Tenn. During her visits to the cemetery Rogers noticed high grass, overturned headstones, roads in poor condition and debris. According to Rogers, the inadequate cemetery maintenance caused her to be very emotional and tearful when she visited the cemetery. In April 2004, Rogers sued the cemetery owner, Louisville Land Company, and its sole shareholder and owner, Joe V. Williams, III, alleging several causes of action including intentional infliction of emotional distress. Following a trial in the Bradley County Chancery Court, the Chancellor awarded Rogers a judgment against the defendants for $45,000 in compensatory damages and $250,000 in punitive damages for intentional infliction of emotional distress, $250 for breach of contract as well as attorney’s fees and discretionary costs. The Court of Appeals reversed the award of compensatory damages, punitive damages and attorney’s fees. The judgment against Williams was also reversed. 

In a unanimous opinion, authored by Justice Sharon G. Lee, the Tennessee Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals’ decision.The Court ruled that in order to recover for intentional infliction of emotional distress, the plaintiff had to prove that she had suffered a serious mental injury resulting from the defendants’ failure to maintain the cemetery. Because the plaintiff’s proof was deficient, the judgment for compensatory and punitive damages in her favor was reversed. The Court also ruled that Williams could not be held personally liable for breach of contract because the company and Williams are distinct legal entities.

To read the Betty Saint Rogers v. Louisville Land Company opinion authored by Justice Sharon G. Lee, visit http://www.tncourts.gov/sites/default/files/rogersbetty_opn.pdf.