Supreme Court Opinions

Format: 12/19/2014
Format: 12/19/2014
Herbert S. Moncier v. Board of Professional Responsibility
E2012-00340-SC-R3-BP
Authoring Judge: Justice Cornelia A. Clark
Trial Court Judge:

An attorney suspended from the practice of law for eleven months and twenty-nine days,with all but forty-five days of the suspension probated, was assessed costs associated with the proceedings that resulted in his suspension pursuant to Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 9, section 24.3. The attorney timely filed a petition seeking relief from costs, and a panel of the Board of Professional Responsibility convened and conducted a hearing on the petition. The panel denied the petition, and the attorney has appealed to this Court, as permitted by Rule 9, section 24.3. Having carefully and thoroughly considered the record and each of the nine issues raised, we affirm the panel’s decision denying the petition for relief from costs.
 

Supreme Court 05/24/13
State of Tennessee v. Prince Adams
W2009-01492-SC-R11-CD
Authoring Judge: Chief Justice Gary R. Wade
Trial Court Judge: Judge James M. Lammey, Jr.

The defendant was convicted of first degree premeditated murder and received a life sentence. In his appeal to the Court of Criminal Appeals, he alleged that the evidence was insufficient to support his conviction; that a discharged alternate juror improperly communicated with the jury foreman; and that the trial court erred by failing to exclude from the evidence certain photographs and recordings and by failing to provide a special jury instruction on diminished capacity. The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the conviction and sentence. This Court granted permission to appeal to address whether the communication by the alternate juror to the foreman entitled the defendant to a new trial. Because the State successfully rebutted the presumption of prejudice that accompanies an improper communication with a juror, we find no error and, therefore, affirm the judgment of the Court of Criminal Appeals.
 

Shelby County Supreme Court 05/16/13
Walton Cunningham et al. v. Williamson County Hosp. Dist. d/b/a Williamson Med. Ctr. et al.
M2011-00554-SC-S09-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice Janice M. Holder
Trial Court Judge: Judge James G. Martin, III

A husband and wife filed a claim against a county hospital alleging that the negligence of the hospital and its employees caused the death of their son. The claim was filed approximately fifteen months after their son’s death in accordance with the provisions of the Tennessee Medical Malpractice Act. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-26-121 (2012). The county hospital, a governmental entity, filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that the claim was filed outside the one-year statute of limitations of the Governmental Tort Liability Act (“GTLA”). Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-20-305(b) (2012). The couple responded that their complaint was timely filed because Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-26-121(c) extended the GTLA statute of limitations by 120 days. The trial court denied the hospital’s motion to dismiss but granted an interlocutory appeal under Rule 9 of the Tennessee Rules of Appellate Procedure. The Court of Appeals granted the Rule 9 application and affirmed the trial court’s denial of the hospital’s motion to dismiss. We granted the hospital permission to appeal. We hold that the 120-day extension provided by Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-26-121(c) does not apply to the plaintiffs’ claim brought under the GTLA. We therefore reverse the judgment of the trial court denying the hospital’s motion to dismiss and remand the case to the trial court for entry of an order dismissing Mr. and Mrs. Cunningham’s complaint.

Williamson County Supreme Court 05/09/13
Clifton A. Lake et al. v. The Memphis Landsmen, LLC et al.
W2011-00660-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Chief Justice Gary R. Wade
Trial Court Judge: Judge John R. McCarroll, Jr.

On March 18, 1998, a concrete truck collided with a shuttle bus used to transport passengers between the Memphis International Airport and a nearby rental car facility. A passenger, who suffered a severe brain injury as a result of the collision, and his wife brought suit against the owner of the bus, the manufacturer of the bus, the manufacturer of the bus windows, and the franchisor of the rental car business. They based their claims in negligence and products liability, contending that the bus was unsafe because it was not equipped with passenger seatbelts, because it had side windows made of tempered glass rather than laminated glass, and because it provided perimeter seating instead of forward-facing rows. The trial court granted summary judgment to the window manufacturer and partial summary judgments as to the products liability claims against the bus owner and franchisor, but otherwise denied the defendants’ motions for summary judgment, which asserted that the plaintiffs’ claims were preempted by federal motor vehicle safety standards. Following trial, the jury found that the plaintiffs had sustained damages in the amount of $8,543,630, but assessed 100% of the fault to the corporate owner of the concrete truck, which had reached a settlement with the plaintiffs prior to trial. On appeal, the plaintiffs contended that they were entitled to a new trial, citing twelve grounds for review. As a threshold issue, however, the defendants continued to argue federal preemption of the claims. The Court of Appeals held that Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards 205 and 208, 49 C.F.R. §§ 571.205, .208 (1995), preempted the claims based on the lack of passenger seatbelts and the material used in the window glass, and further ruled that the trial court had erred by failing to grant a directed verdict on the perimeter-seating claim because the evidence was insufficient to establish causation. We granted the plaintiffs permission to appeal and remanded the case to the Court of Appeals for reconsideration in light of the intervening decision by the United States Supreme Court in Williamson v. Mazda Motor of America, Inc., 131 S. Ct. 1131 (2011). On remand, the Court of Appeals reaffirmed its prior judgment, concluding that the ruling in Williamson did not affect its previous analysis. The plaintiffs were again granted permission to appeal. Because the seatbelt and window-glass claims are not preempted by federal law and the evidence sufficiently demonstrates causation in fact as to the perimeter seating claim, the judgment is reversed and the cause is remanded to the Court of Appeals for consideration of the plaintiffs’ claims of error during the course of the trial.

Shelby County Supreme Court 05/03/13
Glassman, Edwards, Wyatt, Tuttle & Cox, P.C. v. B. J. Wade et al.
W2012-00321-SC-S10-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice Janice M. Holder
Trial Court Judge: Chancellor Walter L. Evans

A law firm filed suit against a former partner and a former paralegal. Both former employees filed motions to compel arbitration. The trial court consolidated the cases and stayed discovery except as to the issue of whether the cases were subject to arbitration. Subsequently, the trial court ordered the parties to engage in mediation and to disclose “all necessary documents to conduct a meaningful attempt at resolution” despite the prior order limiting discovery. After the trial court denied their motion to vacate the order, the former partner and paralegal sought an extraordinary appeal to the Court of Appeals under Rule 10 of the Tennessee Rules of Appellate Procedure, which was denied. We granted extraordinary appeal. We hold that the trial court erred in ordering discovery without limiting the scope of discovery to the issue of arbitrability, in contravention of the unambiguous language of the Tennessee Uniform Arbitration Act, and erred in referring the parties to mediation in an effort to resolve all issues. We vacate the order of the trial court, and we remand the case to the trial court for a determination on the motions to compel arbitration.

Shelby County Supreme Court 04/30/13
Morgan Keegan & Company, Inc. v. William Hamilton Smythe, III et al.
W2010-01339-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice William C. Koch, Jr.
Trial Court Judge: Chancellor Walter L. Evans

This case requires us to decide whether Tennessee’s appellate courts possess subject matter jurisdiction to review a trial court’s order that vacates an arbitration award and remands the dispute to a new arbitration panel without expressly declining to confirm the award. An investor pursued a claim against an investment company over losses he incurred due to the failure of some of the company’s bond funds. After a Financial Industry Regulatory Authority arbitration panel ruled in the investor’s favor, the investment company petitioned the Chancery Court for Shelby County to vacate the award based on its belief that two members of the arbitration panel were biased. The trial court, without expressly declining to confirm the award, vacated the award and remanded the case for a second arbitration before a new panel. The investor appealed. The Court of Appeals, on its own motion, dismissed the appeal on the ground that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction. Morgan Keegan & Co. v. Smythe, No.W2010-01339-COA-R3-CV,2011 WL 5517036, at *8 (Tenn. Ct. App. Nov. 14, 2011). We granted the investor’s application for permission to appeal and now reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals because the trial court’s order is, in fact, an appealable order “denying confirmation of an award” under Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-5319(a)(3) (2012).

Shelby County Supreme Court 04/25/13
Marta Vandall v. Aurora Healthcare, LLC - Dissent
W2011-02042-SC-R3-WC
Authoring Judge: Justice William C. Koch, Jr.
Trial Court Judge: Chancellor Walter L. Evans

I respectfully disagree with the Court’s decision to affirm the trial court’s conclusion that Marta Vandall sustained a compensable work-related injury.
 

Shelby County Supreme Court 04/24/13
Marta Vandall v. Aurora Healthcare, LLC d/b/a Allenbrooke Nursing & Rehab
W2011-02042-SC-R3-WC
Authoring Judge: Justice Janice M. Holder
Trial Court Judge: Chancellor Walter L. Evans

An employee fell while working for her employer and sustained a shoulder fracture. The employer contends that the injury did not arise out of her employment and was an idiopathic fall. The trial court held that the employee sustained the burden of proving that her injury arose out of her employment. We affirm the trial court’s judgment.
 

Shelby County Supreme Court 04/24/13
State of Tennessee v. Nickolus L. Johnson
E2010-00172-SC-DDT-DD
Authoring Judge: Justice Sharon G. Lee
Trial Court Judge: Judge R. Jerry Beck

A jury convicted the defendant of premeditated first degree murder for shooting and killing a police officer. As the penalty phase of the trial began, the defendant refused to allow his lawyers to present mental health mitigation evidence. After questioning the defendant about his decision, the trial court directed two mental health experts to evaluate the defendant’s mental competency. After the evaluation, the mental health experts testified that they could not render an opinion as to the defendant’s competency because the defendant had refused to cooperate. The trial court ruled that the defendant had failed to overcome the presumption of competency and was therefore competent to waive the presentation of expert mental health testimony. The State proved the existence of two aggravating circumstances pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated sections 39-13-204 (i)(2) and (9) (2006). The defendant presented testimony from family and  friends. The jury sentenced the defendant to death. The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the defendant’s conviction and sentence. State v. Johnson, No. E2010-00172-CCA-R3-DD, 2012 WL 690218 (Tenn. Crim. App. Mar. 5, 2012). We hold that a mentally competent defendant may waive the presentation of mitigation evidence during the penalty phase of a capital trial. We further hold that (1) the evidence does not preponderate against the trial court’s ruling that the defendant was mentally competent to waive the presentation of mitigation evidence; (2) the trial court did not err in overruling the defendant’s motion for a mistrial based on the State’s improper reference to abortion during its closing argument; (3) the defendant’s challenge to the constitutionality of Tennessee’s death penalty is without merit; and (4) based on our review of the death sentence, as required by Tennessee Code Annotated section 39-13-206(c) (2010), the death sentence was not imposed in an arbitrary fashion; the evidence supports the jury’s finding of statutory aggravating circumstances; the evidence supports the jury’s finding that the aggravating circumstances outweigh any mitigating circumstances; and the sentence of death is not excessive or disproportionate to the penalty imposed in similar cases. We affirm the defendant’s first degree murder conviction and sentence of death.

Sullivan County Supreme Court 04/19/13
State of Tennessee v. Bobby Lee Robinson et al.
M2009-02450-SC-R11-CD
Authoring Judge: Justice Janice M. Holder
Trial Court Judge: Judge Monte Watkins

Police utilized a confidential informant to arrange a drug buy from a co-defendant. At the scheduled time and location, the co-defendant arrived in his truck with the defendant and another passenger. A police takedown resulted in the arrest of the three men. A consensual search of the truck yielded approximately 153 grams of cocaine and 8.6 grams of marijuana in close proximity to where the defendant had been seated. A subsequent consensual search of the co-defendant’s residence, located several miles away, yielded an additional 293.5 grams of cocaine and various items of drug paraphernalia. The State consolidated the weight of the cocaine and charged the defendant with possession with intent to sell 300 grams or more of cocaine, a Class A felony; possession of marijuana; and possession of drug paraphernalia. The jury convicted the defendant of possession with intent to sell 300 grams or more of cocaine and possession of drug paraphernalia. We hold that although the evidence was sufficient to support a finding that the defendant constructively possessed the cocaine in the co-defendant’s truck, the evidence was insufficient to support a finding that he constructively possessed either the cocaine or the drug paraphernalia in the co-defendant’s residence. Accordingly, we reduce the conviction for possession with intent to sell 300 grams or more of cocaine to possession with intent to sell 26 to 299 grams of cocaine, a Class B felony, and we vacate the conviction for possession of drug paraphernalia. The case is remanded to the trial court for re-sentencing on the reduced offense.

Davidson County Supreme Court 04/19/13
State of Tennessee v. David Hooper Climer, Jr.
W2010-01667-SC-R11-CD
Authoring Judge: Justice Cornelia A. Clark
Trial Court Judge: Judge Clayburn Peeples

We granted this appeal to determine whether the trial court erred by denying the defendant’s motion to suppress his statements to the police on the grounds that they were elicited in violation of his constitutional right to counsel and were involuntary. We have determined that the defendant did not unequivocally request counsel and therefore did not invoke his constitutional right to counsel. Nevertheless, we have also determined that the State failed to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant waived the rights enumerated in Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966). Thus, we hold that the defendant’s statements were erroneously admitted into evidence, but the physical evidence discovered as a result of his statements was properly admitted because the totality of the circumstances shows that the defendant’s statements were voluntary and not coerced. We also hold that the State failed to establish that the erroneous admission of the defendant’s statements was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. Accordingly, the defendant’s convictions of second degree murder and abuse of a corpse are vacated, and this case is remanded for further proceedings.

Gibson County Supreme Court 04/19/13
State of Tennessee v. NV Sumatra Tobacco Trading Company - Dissent
M2010-01955-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Chief Justice Gary R. Wade
Trial Court Judge: Chancellor Carol L. McCoy

In November of 1998, a number of American tobacco manufacturers and a majority of the states and territories of the United States, including Tennessee, reached a settlement in litigation over tobacco-related healthcare costs. The terms of the settlement permit the tobacco manufacturers that were involved in the litigation to withhold a portion of their liability under the settlement terms based upon loss of market share in a participating state, unless the state enacts a “qualifying statute” requiring manufacturers not party to the litigation to either participate in the settlement or pay an amount into a designated escrow fund based upon annual cigarette sales. The underlying purpose of requiring non-participating manufacturers to either join in the settlement or pay into the escrow fund is to assure “a level playing field” for all manufacturers selling cigarettes in the participating states and territories. In consequence, Tennessee adopted a qualifying statute, the Tennessee Tobacco Manufacturers’ Escrow Fund Act of 1999 (“Escrow Fund Act”), Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 47-31-101 to -103 (2001 & Supp. 2012), which requires “[a]ny tobacco product manufacturer selling cigarettes to consumers within the state of Tennessee” after May 26, 1999, to either become a party to the existing settlement agreement or make specified payments into a “qualified escrow fund.” Id. § 47-31-103(a).
 

Davidson County Supreme Court 03/28/13
State of Tennessee v. NV Sumatra Tobacco Trading Company
M2010-01955-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice William C. Koch, Jr.
Trial Court Judge: Chancellor Carol L. McCoy

This appeal concerns whether Tennessee courts may exercise personal jurisdiction over an Indonesian cigarette manufacturer whose cigarettes were sold in Tennessee through the marketing efforts of a Florida entrepreneur who purchased the cigarettes from an independent foreign distributor. From 2000 to 2002, over eleven million of the Indonesian manufacturer’s cigarettes were sold in Tennessee. After the manufacturer withdrew its cigarettes from the United States market, the State of Tennessee filed suit against the manufacturer in the Chancery Court for Davidson County,alleging that the manufacturer had failed to pay into the Tobacco Manufacturers’ Escrow Fund as required by Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 47-31-101 to -103 (2001 & Supp. 2012). The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment, and the trial court dismissed the suit for lack of personal jurisdiction over the Indonesian manufacturer. The Court of Appeals reversed, granted the State’s motion for summary judgment, and remanded the case to the trial court to determine the applicable fines. State ex rel. Cooper v. NV Sumatra Tobacco Trading Co., No. M2010-01955-COA-R3-CV, 2011 WL 2571851 (Tenn. Ct. App. June 28, 2011). We find that, under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, Tennessee courts lack personal jurisdiction over the Indonesian manufacturer. We therefore reverse the decision of the Court of Appeals and dismiss the case for lack of personal jurisdiction pursuant to Tenn. R. Civ. P. 12.02(2).

Davidson County Supreme Court 03/28/13