Court Rules Service of Process, Not Return of Proof of Service, is Key to Satisfying Time Deadline for Filing Lawsuit

September 12, 2013

The Tennessee Supreme Court has ruled today that a failure to promptly return proof of service of process doesn’t prevent a lawsuit from meeting the time deadline for filing suit so long as process is actually served within the appropriate time period.

Service of process is the act of giving legal notice to someone – usually with a summons – that they are being named a party to a lawsuit. In this case, Cristy Fair sued Stephen Cochran on December 11, 2009, citing his negligence in an automobile accident in which the two were involved on August 6, 2009.

A summons also was issued on December 11, 2009, and was allegedly served on Mr. Cochran at his home on December 20, 2009. The person who served Mr. Cochran did not promptly return proof of the alleged service to the court until after Mr. Cochran moved to dismiss the lawsuit in January 2011. The trial court granted Mr. Cochran’s request, and the dismissal was later upheld by the Court of Appeals.

The date of service is important because the filing of a lawsuit and notice to parties are required by law to meet certain legal time deadlines, known as statutes of limitation. In this case, that deadline was one year from the date of the accident to commence the lawsuit, and 90 days to serve process on the defendant Mr. Cochran.

In the majority Opinion, the Court determined that the rules that govern service of process do not require that proof of service of process be promptly returned to the court in order to effectively initiate a lawsuit, as long as the person sued is actually served within 90 days of a summons being issued. The Court has sent the case back to the trial court to determine whether that 90-day service deadline was met in this case. In light of the fact that Ms. Fair’s lawsuit was filed within one year of the accident, if the trial court determines that Mr. Cochran was served within 90 days after the summons was issued, Ms. Fair’s lawsuit may proceed.

In her concurring Opinion, Justice Janice M. Holder agrees with the majority that under one rule, the prompt service of process is sufficient to meet the legal deadline without immediate proof of that service. However, Justice Holder writes that the majority failed to adequately address another rule that requires one to “promptly make proof of service.”

To read the majority Opinion in Cristy Irene Fair v. Stephen Lynn Cochran, authored by Justice Cornelia A. Clark, and the concurring Opinion by Justice Holder, visit the Opinions section of TNCourts.gov.