Supreme Court Dismisses Claims Filed Against Clarksville After One-Year Statute of Limitations

September 18, 2015

The Tennessee Supreme Court has ruled that claims against the City of Clarksville did not fall under any exceptions to the legal deadlines for filing a lawsuit and have dismissed the complaint against the City.

On Christmas Eve in 2009, a tree on State of Tennessee property fell on Richard Moreno’s car as he crossed the Neal Tarpley Bridge in Clarksville. Mr. Moreno sustained serious injuries in the incident. On December 17, 2010, Mr. Moreno completed a Tennessee Department of Treasury form, describing his personal injury claim against the State of Tennessee, and filed it with the Division of Claims Administration. Mr. Moreno’s claim was not resolved based on the form notice he filed.

Mr. Moreno then filed a complaint against the State, alleging negligence. The complaint was filed more than a year after the tree fell on Mr. Moreno’s car. The State filed an answer to Mr. Moreno’s complaint and then, more than a year later, amended its answer to allege that the City of Clarksville may have been at fault for the falling tree. The State said in its amended answer that water runoff from a city storm drain may have caused erosion that weakened the tree and resulted in it falling on Mr. Moreno’s car.

In response to the State’s assertion about the storm drain, Mr. Moreno filed a lawsuit in the Circuit Court of Montgomery County alleging negligence against the City. Normally the time limit for a personal injury claim – called a statute of limitations – is one year. Mr. Moreno’s lawsuit against Clarksville was filed several years after the tree fell on his car.

However, Mr. Moreno relied on an exception to the statute of limitations contained in Tennessee law which creates a 90-day grace period for a plaintiff to bring an action against a nonparty who was named in an answer filed by a defendant. However, the law specifies that the 90-day grace period is available only if the “original complaint” filed against the first defendant was filed within the limitations period, which in this case was one year.

The City of Clarksville filed a motion to dismiss based on the one-year statute of limitations. The trial court granted the motion, and Mr. Moreno appealed to the Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s dismissal of Mr. Moreno’s lawsuit against the City. It acknowledged that Mr. Moreno’s complaint against the State was not filed within the one-year statute of limitations, but nevertheless held that Mr. Moreno could rely on the 90-day grace period because he had filed the written notice of his claim against the State with the Division of Claims within one year.

In the Tennessee Supreme Court, the City argued that there was no exception to the statute of limitations available to Mr. Moreno, so his lawsuit should be dismissed. The Supreme Court agreed and reversed the Court of Appeals.  The Supreme Court held that, under the law, the “original complaint” was not the notice of claim filed with the Division of Claims, but Mr. Moreno’s complaint against the State, which was filed over one year after the incident. For that reason, the Supreme Court held the 90-day grace period was not available to Mr. Moreno.

In the alternative, Mr. Moreno argued that the statute of limitations was suspended under the law governing the Tennessee Claims Commission. The Supreme Court rejected this argument, relying on the doctrine of sovereign immunity. It held that, because Tennessee’s legislature had not indicated a clear intent to apply the tolling provision to a claim against a governmental entity, Mr. Moreno could not rely on it to toll the statute of limitations on his claim against the City of Clarksville.

The Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals and affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of Mr. Moreno’s complaint against the City of Clarksville. The Supreme Court held that Mr. Moreno’s complaint against Clarksville was filed too late and had to be dismissed. 

Dissenting from the majority, Justice Gary R. Wade concluded that a “notice of claim,” the statutory term used to describe the initial pleading in the Division of Claims Administration, qualifies as an “original complaint initiating a suit” because the notice meets the traditional definition of a “complaint” and its filing has the same effect. Justice Wade agreed with the Court of Appeals that Mr. Moreno’s claim against Clarksville should be decided on the merits instead of dismissed on procedural grounds.

Read the majority opinion in Richard Moreno v. City of Clarksville, authored by Justice Holly Kirby, and the dissent by Justice Wade.