Tennessee Supreme Court to Hear Oral Argument Via Live-Stream Video Conference

May 15, 2020

The Tennessee Supreme Court remains committed to keeping Tennessee courts open while protecting the health and safety of all parties.  Due to the continued concerns regarding COVID-19, the cases set for the May 19, 2020 docket will be heard by livestream video conferencing.  This is one of the many efforts the Court has taken during the COVID-19 pandemic to prioritize the health and well-being of all litigants, attorneys, judges, and employees of the court system.  The details of the cases are as follows:

  • Carolyn Coffman et al. v. Armstrong International, Inc. et al.– In this products liability action, Carolyn Coffman, acting as plaintiff on behalf of her husband, alleged that her husband developed mesothelioma as a result of exposure to asbestos when removing insulation, gaskets, and packing from industrial equipment at his workplace.  Ms. Coffman sought to hold the manufacturers of the industrial equipment (“the Equipment Defendants”) liable on the basis that they had a duty to warn of the dangers associated with the asbestos-containing products that were incorporated into their equipment.  The Equipment Defendants filed motions for summary judgment as to the plaintiffs’ claims arising from the post-sale integration of asbestos-containing equipment.  The trial court granted the motions and held that the “bare metal defense,” under principles of federal tort law, relieved the Equipment Defendants of their duty to warn because their pieces of equipment were merely components of the larger system at Mr. Coffman’s workplace.  Additionally, the trial court concluded that the Equipment Defendants did not substantially participate in the integration of their equipment into the employer’s system and their products were not shown to be defective.  The plaintiff appealed, and the Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the “bare metal defense” did not apply and that the defense is inconsistent with binding precedent in Tennessee as stated in Satterfield v. Breeding Insulation Company, 266 S.W.3d 347 (Tenn. 2008).  The Court of Appeals applied the test from Satterfieldand held that the defendants had a duty to warn about the dangers associated with the asbestos-containing products incorporated post-sale even if manufactured by a third party.  On appeal to this Court, the parties have been asked to address the following question in addition to the issues raised in their briefs:  Whether the Court of Appeals erred in holding that the Equipment Defendants had a duty to warn of the dangers associated with the post-sale integration of asbestos-containing materials manufactured and sold by others.
  • Clarissa Bidwell ex rel James Bidwell et al. v. Timothy Strait MD et al.In this healthcare liability action, James Bidwell is named as the plaintiff on behalf of his wife, Clarissa Bidwell, who is deceased.  Ms. Bidwell went to the hospital for cranial issues and, after diagnostic testing and diagnosis, she was released from care by Drs. Timothy Strait and Jeffrey Colburn.  On the way home, she experienced stroke-like symptoms and was flown to Erlanger Hospital (“EH”) to undergo emergency brain surgery.  She passed away shortly thereafter.  Following an investigation, the plaintiff provided pre-suit notice to Drs. Strait and Colburn and two facilities that he believed were the doctors’ employers, as required by Tennessee’s Healthcare Liability Act (“the Act”).  The plaintiff filed suit against the doctors and the facilities under the Act alleging negligence and vicarious liability related to the conduct of the physician defendants.  EH was not one of the employers listed in the original complaint, and the plaintiff did not send pre-suit notice to EH.  In their answers, the physician defendants denied being employees of the facilities listed in the complaint.  Additionally, Dr. Strait stated that his facility had been acquired by EH, and he reserved the right to plead comparative negligence as to the plaintiff or other responsible parties but claimed he did not know of any other parties that could be named as a defendant in the suit.  Dr. Colburn also reserved the right to raise the defense of comparative fault and stated that at all times relevant to the suit, he provided medical care at a division of EH.  The physician defendants filed motions for summary judgment, claiming that EH was their actual employer and, because EH was not listed as a defendant in the case, as required by statute, the doctors were immune from suit and the case should be dismissed.  The plaintiff filed a motion to amend its complaint to substitute EH as the physician defendants’ employer and to add claims against EH.  The trial court denied the motion to amend and granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants.  The trial court reasoned that EH was a necessary party to the action, and because the plaintiff failed to provide pre-suit notice to EH within the statute of limitations period, the plaintiff could not add EH as a party.  The plaintiff appealed and the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s denial of the motion to amend and vacated the grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendants.  The Court of Appeals reasoned that the physician defendants were required by statute to notify the plaintiff that EH was a “known or necessary party within thirty days of receiving pre-suit notice.”  Additionally, because the physician defendants failed to do so, and then subsequently declared that EH was a necessary party, the plaintiff was entitled to additional time to amend his complaint to add EH and the claims against it.  On appeal to this Court, the defendants argue that the statute requiring defendants to notify a plaintiff about a known or necessary party should not be interpreted broadly and only applies when there is an error regarding the named parties in the suit and the defendant knows of the error.  Additionally, the physician defendants contend that the plaintiff cannot rely on the statute because he was aware of EH before filing suit, and the Act’s 90-day savings statute did not apply in this case because neither defendant pled comparative fault against EH in his answer.
  • Scott Trent et al. v. Mountain Commerce Bank et al.This case involves an attempt to reform a deed for real property.  The essential question raised by this case is whether Tennessee law precludes the reformation of a deed to add an omitted party even when it is undisputed that the intent of the parties was that the omitted party be included.  The property included in the deed (“the Property”) was conveyed by Real Estate Holdings of East Tennessee, L.P. (“REH”) to Scott and Ted Trent in 2016.  REH acquired the Property from Adren and Pamela Green on March 10, 2010, by quitclaim deed.  The March 10 deed included Adren Green’s name and signature as grantor and Shannon Green’s name and signature as grantee and representative of REH.  Pamela Green’s name and signature did not appear on the deed.  Between 2010 and 2016, First Community Bank and Mountain Commerce Bank (“the respondents”) were awarded judgments against Adren and Pamela Green.  On August 30, 2016, REH conveyed the property to the Trents, and, shortly thereafter, Adren and Pamela Green executed a correction to the August 30 deed that acknowledged Pamela Green was absent from the original March 10, 2010 deed that gave REH interest in the Property, and the parties attempted to correct the March 10 deed to add Pamela Green as grantor.  On September 8, 2017, Scott and Ted Trent, trustee William Phillips, and Civis Bank (“the petitioners”) initiated a declaratory judgment action seeking to declare that they were vested with “all right, title, and interest” in the Property, subject only to the deed of trust executed in order to secure financing through Civis Bank.  Additionally, the petitioners sought to declare that the respondents had no interest or lien on the Property via their judgments against the Greens.  The petitioners requested that the trial court reform the original March 10, 2010 quitclaim deed to include Pamela Green as grantor.  After a trial, the court determined that the evidence showed Pamela Green intended to convey her interest in the Property in the March 10, 2010 deed.  However, the trial court held that it did not have the power to add Pamela Green as a grantor because there was no mutual mistake between the actual parties to that deed, Arden and Shannon Green.  The trial court declined to hold that the petitioners were the only parties with interest in the Property.  The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision.  On appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court, the petitioners argue that the March 10 deed was just a manifestation of the original agreement between three parties, Arden, Pamela, and Shannon Green, and there was a mutual mistake between those three parties that led to the deed not accurately reflecting the transfer of Pamela Green’s interest.  Additionally, because all parties testified and agreed that it was a mistake not to include Pamela Green on the March 10 deed, the trial court had the authority to reform the deed.  The respondents argue that their judgments attached to Pamela Green’s interest in the property, giving them a superior interest in the property over the petitioners, and the March 10 deed cannot be reformed when there are intervening judgment liens on the Property.  The respondents also argue that reformation cannot be used to add a grantor to the deed.

All three cases will be live-streamed to the TNCourts.gov YouTube channel.