Supreme Court Opinions

Format: 10/06/2015
Format: 10/06/2015
Cristy Irene Fair v. Stephen Lynn Cochran
Authoring Judge: Justice Cornelia A. Clark
Trial Court Judge: Judge Dale C. Workman

We granted this appeal to determine whether the return of proof of service of process 412 days after issuance of a summons precludes a plaintiff from relying upon the original commencement of the lawsuit to toll the running of the statute of limitations. We hold that the plain language of Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure 3 and 4.03 does not condition the effectiveness of the original commencement to toll the statute of limitations upon the prompt return of proof of service. We reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals affirming the trial court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s lawsuit. We remand this case to the trial court to determine whether service of process occurred within ninety days of issuance of the summons. If so, the plaintiff may rely upon the original commencement of the lawsuit to toll the statute of limitations.

Knox County Supreme Court 09/12/13
State of Tennessee v. William Darelle Smith
Authoring Judge: Justice William C. Koch, Jr.
Trial Court Judge: Judge Seth Norman

This appeal concerns the appropriate response when a trial court learns during a jury’s deliberations that a juror exchanged Facebook messages with one of the State’s witnesses during the trial. A criminal court in Davidson County declined the defendant’s request to hold a hearing to question the juror and the witness to ascertain whether the communications required a new trial. The Court of Criminal Appeals concluded that the trial court had not erred by declining the defendant’s request for a hearing. State v. Smith, No. M2010-01384-CCA-R3-CD, 2012 WL 8502564 (Tenn. Crim. App. Mar. 2, 2012). We disagree and, therefore, vacate the judgment and remand the case for a hearing consistent with this opinion.

Davidson County Supreme Court 09/10/13
Neal Lovlace et al. v. Timothy Kevin Copley et al.
Authoring Judge: Justice Cornelia A. Clark
Trial Court Judge: Judge Robbie T. Beal

In this grandparent visitation case, we must determine, in the absence of a controlling statutory provision, the appropriate burdens of proof and standards courts should apply where a grandparent and a parent seek to modify and terminate, respectively, court-ordered grandparent visitation. We hold that when a grandparent or a parent initiates a proceeding to modify or terminate court-ordered grandparent visitation, courts should apply the burdens of proof and standards typically applied in parent-vs-parent visitation modification cases. Thus, the burden of proof is upon the grandparent or parent seeking modification or termination to demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence both that a material change in circumstances has occurred and that the change in circumstances makes the requested modification or termination of grandparent visitation in the child’s best interests. Applying this holding, we conclude that the record in this case supports the trial court’s judgment modifying grandparent visitation. However, we conclude that the trial court failed to make sufficiently specific findings of fact to support its judgment finding the mother in contempt of the order granting grandparent visitation. Accordingly, we reverse the Court of Appeals’ judgment, reinstate that portion of the trial court’s judgment which modified the grandparent visitation arrangement, and vacate those portions of the trial court’s judgment finding the mother in contempt and ordering her to pay a portion of the grandparents’ attorney’s fees.

Hickman County Supreme Court 09/06/13
Tracy Rose Baker v. State of Tennessee
Authoring Judge: Justice Cornelia A. Clark
Trial Court Judge: Judge David E. Durham

We accepted this appeal to determine whether the petitioner is entitled to seek post-conviction relief from a judgment in a civil case finding her in criminal contempt and imposing sanctions, pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-9-102 (2012). We hold that a criminal contempt adjudication under Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-9-102 does not amount to a criminal conviction under the general criminal laws for purposes of the Post-Conviction Procedure Act. We affirm the judgment of the Court of Criminal Appeals affirming the dismissal of the petition.

Sumner County Supreme Court 09/06/13
Aundrey Meals, ex rel. William Meals v. Ford Motor Company
Authoring Judge: Justice Sharon G. Lee
Trial Court Judge: Judge Donna M. Fields

A six-year-old boy’s spine was fractured in a car wreck when the force of the impact caused him to jackknife over his lap seatbelt and pushed the seatbelt into his stomach and against his spine. The child’s mother filed suit on his behalf against Ford Motor Company (“Ford”), alleging that the defective design of the seatbelt and Ford’s failure to warn of a potential danger caused the child’s permanent paralysis and other enhanced injuries. A jury returned a $43.8 million verdict for compensatory damages, finding Ford to be 15% at fault and two non-parties 85% at fault. Ford’s share of the verdict, based on its degree of fault, was $6,570,000. The jury awarded no punitive damages. Ford moved for a new trial, arguing that the verdict was excessive. The trial court denied the motion for new trial and affirmed the verdict in its capacity as thirteenth juror. The Court of Appeals, in a divided opinion, ruled that the verdict was excessive and remanded to the trial court with a suggestion of remittitur from $43.8 million to $12.9 million, a 70.55% reduction. The suggested remittitur, if the plaintiff accepted it, would reduce Ford’s share of the verdict to $1,935,000. Meals ex rel. Meals v. Ford Motor Co., No. W2010-01493-COA-R3-CV, 2012 WL 1264454, at *18-21 (Tenn. Ct. App. Apr. 13, 2012). We hold that the Court of Appeals had the authority to suggest a remittitur even though Ford did not request a remittitur. We further hold that the Court of Appeals erred in remitting the verdict to $12.9 million. Having taken the strongest legitimate view of all the material evidence in favor of the verdict, assuming the truth of all that supports it, allowing all reasonable inferences, and discarding any to the contrary, we hold that the jury’s verdict was supported by material evidence and was within the range of reasonableness. The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed and the jury’s verdict is reinstated.

Shelby County Supreme Court 08/30/13
William H. Mansell v. Bridgestone Firestone North American Tire, LLC et al.
Authoring Judge: Chief Justice Gary R. Wade
Trial Court Judge: Judge John D. Wootten, Jr.

After a benefit review conference in the Department of Labor and Workforce Development failed to produce a settlement, the employee filed suit for workers’ compensation benefits. Because the suit had already been filed, the trial court denied a request by the employer for an independent medical examination pursuant to the medical impairment rating (“MIR”) process in Tennessee Code Annotated section 50-6-204(d)(5) (2008 & Supp. 2012). After hearing all other proof relating to the claim, the trial court awarded compensation to the employee and questioned the constitutionality of the MIR process. The employer appealed; the Attorney General filed a brief as amicus curiae; and this Court vacated the judgment and remanded the cause for additional proceedings. On remand, the AttorneyGeneral was added as a defendant to address the constitutional issue. The trial court considered additional evidence, which included an MIR report by an independent medical examiner, and ruled that section 50-6-204(d)(5), which requires our courts to consider the opinion of an independent medical examiner appointed under that section as presumptively accurate, is an unconstitutional infringement upon the powers of the judiciary. In the alternative, the trial court held that the statutory presumption of the accuracy of the report, if compliant with constitutional principles, was overcome by the other medical evidence, and that the employee was entitled to a 10% permanent impairment rating rather than the 7% rating in the MIR report. In this appeal, the employer and the Attorney General argue that the statute meets constitutional standards. We hold that the MIR process does not violate constitutional principles, and we further find that the evidence did not clearly and convincingly rebut the statutory presumption. The judgment of the trial court is, therefore, reversed in part, and affirmed and modified in part. The cause is remanded for additional proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Smith County Supreme Court 08/20/13
Velda J. Shore v. Maple Lane Farms, LLC et al.
Authoring Judge: Justice William C. Koch, Jr.
Trial Court Judge: Chancellor Telford E. Forgety, Jr.

This appeal involves a dispute over the noise from amplified music concerts being conducted on farm land in rural Blount County. After the business owners who hosted the concerts defied the county zoning authority’s order limiting the concerts to one per year, a neighboring property owner filed suit in the Chancery Court for Blount County seeking to abate the concerts as a common-law nuisance and to enforce the decision of the county board of zoning appeals. The trial court granted the defendants’ motion for an involuntary dismissal at the close of the plaintiff’s proof, finding that the Tennessee Right to Farm Act, Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 43-26-101 to -104 (2007), precluded nuisance liability and that the concerts were exempted from the local land use regulations because they qualified as “agriculture.” The Court of Appeals affirmed. Shore v. Maple Lane Farms, LLC, No. E2011-00158-COA-R3-CV, 2012 WL 1245606 (Tenn. Ct. App. Apr. 11, 2012). We granted the plaintiff homeowner permission to appeal. We hold that the trial court erred by granting the motion to dismiss because the plaintiff homeowner presented a prima facie case of common-law nuisance and because the concerts are not “agriculture” for the purpose of the zoning laws.

Blount County Supreme Court 08/19/13
State of Tennessee v. Angela M. Merriman
Authoring Judge: Justice Janice M. Holder
Trial Court Judge: Judge Larry B. Stanley, Jr.

The defendant was arrested for driving under the influence, reckless endangerment with a motor vehicle, reckless driving, driving on a suspended license, and violation of the implied consent law. The arresting officer recorded his pursuit and stop of the defendant’s vehicle using video recording equipment installed in his patrol vehicle, but the video recording was subsequently lost. The defendant filed a motion to dismiss alleging that the State’s failure to preserve potentially exculpatory evidence would deprive her of a fair trial. Following a pre-trial evidentiary hearing, the trial court conducted an analysis under State v. Ferguson, 2 S.W.3d 912 (Tenn. 1999), and dismissed several of the charges. The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the trial court’s judgment, concluding that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in dismissing the charges. State v. Merriman, No. M2011-01682-CCA-R3-CD, 2012 WL 524474, at *3 (Tenn. Crim. App. Feb. 17, 2012). We granted the State permission to appeal. We apply a de novo standard of review and determine that, based on this record, the trial court did not err by finding that it would be fundamentally unfair to require the defendant to go to trial without the video recording. We also conclude that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in choosing dismissal as an appropriate remedy for the State’s loss of the video recording.

Warren County Supreme Court 08/16/13
Jim Hammond, Sheriff of Hamilton County et al. v. Chris Harvey et al.
Authoring Judge: Justice Sharon G. Lee
Trial Court Judge: Chancellor W. Frank Brown, III

The issue presented in this case is whether a county civil service board was authorized to order the county sheriff to equalize the pay of all sergeants employed within the sheriff’s office. A group of sergeants, who were paid varying amounts within an established pay range, filed a grievance regarding pay disparities among sergeants in the sheriff’s office. When the sheriff rejected the grievance, the sergeants filed a grievance with the sheriff’s department civil service board. The board upheld the grievance and ordered the sheriff to equalize the pay of all sergeants in the sheriff’s office. The sheriff and the county appealed to the Hamilton County Chancery Court, which held that the board did not have the authority to order pay equalization and declared the board’s ruling null and void. The Court of Appeals ruled that the board exceeded its statutory authority, but remanded the case to the board so it could direct the sheriff to take the necessary steps to eliminate the pay disparity. Pursuant to Tenn. Code Ann. § 8-8-409(3) (2011), we hold that the board had the authority to hear the grievance, but in the absence of proof that the sheriff violated state law or the sheriff’s department civil service manual, the board lacked the power to order the remedy of salary equalization. There was no proof that the sheriff violated state law, and the civil service manual specifically gave the sheriff the authority to make individual pay determinations. The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed, and the case is remanded to the Chancery Court for further proceedings as are necessary.

Hamilton County Supreme Court 08/13/13
State of Tennessee v. Dewayne Collier a/k/a Patrick Collier
Authoring Judge: Chief Justice Gary R. Wade
Trial Court Judge: Judge John T. Fowlkes, Jr.

A Shelby County jury convicted the defendant of aggravated statutory rape, and the trial court imposed a sentence of four years. On appeal, the defendant, who was forty-two years old at the time of the offense, argued that the evidence was insufficient to support his conviction because the testimony of the fourteen-year-old female victim, a consenting accomplice in the crime, was not adequately corroborated by other proof. The Court of Criminal Appeals found that the victim qualified as an accomplice to the crime but affirmed the conviction, holding that her testimony was sufficiently corroborated by the evidence in the record. This Court granted review to determine whether a victim of statutory rape qualifies as an accomplice such that his or her testimony must be corroborated in order to support a conviction. We hold that the testimony of a victim of statutory rape does not require corroboration. Because the evidence is sufficient to sustain the conviction, the judgment of the Court of Criminal Appeals is affirmed.

Shelby County Supreme Court 08/12/13
State of Tennessee v. Terrance Antonio Cecil
Authoring Judge: Chief Justice Gary R.Wade
Trial Court Judge: Judge Robert L. Jones

The defendant was convicted of false imprisonment and assault. The trial court imposed concurrent sentences of six months, with all but sixty days suspended to probation. More than one year after the trial but while the defendant’s case was pending in the Court of Criminal Appeals, this Court filed its opinion in State v. White, 362 S.W.3d 559 (Tenn. 2012), which requires, on grounds of due process, trial courts to provide a more specific instruction on kidnapping charges as to whether the removal or confinement of a victim is essentially incidental to any accompanying offense. The Court of Criminal Appeals held in this instance that, although the White instruction was not provided at trial, the jury was correctly instructed and the evidence was sufficient to support both convictions. We granted review to determine whether the absence of the White instruction warrants a new trial. Because the omission of the instruction required by White cannot be classified as harmless beyond a reasonable doubt, the conviction for false imprisonment is reversed and the cause remanded for a new trial.

Maury County Supreme Court 08/12/13
H. Owen Maddux v. Board of Professional Responsibility of the Supreme Court of Tennessee
Authoring Judge: Justice Cornelia A. Clark
Trial Court Judge: Special Judge Donald P. Harris

This direct appeal involves a disciplinary proceeding against a Chattanooga lawyer arising out of his representation of two clients. With one member dissenting, a hearing panel of the Board of Professional Responsibility determined that the lawyer should be suspended from the practice of law for nine months. The lawyer appealed to the Chancery Court for Hamilton County, and the trial court upheld the nine-month suspension, concluding that the evidence supported the finding of the hearing panel’s majority that the lawyer’s misconduct caused potential injury to one of his clients. In this appeal, the lawyer argues that (1) the hearing panel erred by refusing to set aside the default judgment entered against him based on his failure to respond to the petition for discipline; (2) the record contains no evidence of potential injury resulting from his misconduct; and (3) the hearing panel ascribed too much weight to his prior history of discipline when considering aggravating and mitigating circumstances. Based on our review of the record, we, like the trial court, affirm the hearing panel’s decision to suspend the lawyer’s license to practice law for nine months.

Hamilton County Supreme Court 08/09/13
Eddie C. Pratcher, Jr. v. Methodist Healthcare Memphis Hospitals et al. - Dissent
Authoring Judge: Justice William C. Koch, Jr.
Trial Court Judge: Judge Donna M. Fields

This case has gone unresolved for far too long. It was finally tried more than six years after Ms. Pratcher’s death and after the filing of four amended complaints. After the jury returned a defendant’s verdict, the trial court granted a new trial because of a perceived shortcoming in the verdict form and because of its disagreementwith the jury’s verdict. With the second trial pending, one of the defendants sought to amend its answer to include a substantively meritorious defense based on the statute of repose in Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-26116(a)(3) (2012). With little explanation or analysis, the trial court denied the motion to amend on the ground of waiver.

Shelby County Supreme Court 06/28/13