Today, the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed a decision of the Court of Appeals that had allowed a plaintiff to proceed with her claims of gross negligence and recklessness against governmental entities under the Tennessee Governmental Tort Liability Act. The Tennessee Supreme Court held that the Act’s waiver of sovereign immunity for “negligent” acts removes immunity only for ordinary negligence, not gross negligence or recklessness.
This case arises from the tragic death of Steven Lawson following a mudslide that destroyed part of Highway 70 on Clinch Mountain in Hawkins County. Mr. Lawson’s truck entered into a chasm where the highway had collapsed and flipped several times down the mountain; he died from injuries sustained in the accident.
Mr. Lawson’s wife, Penny Lawson, filed a case in circuit court against the Hawkins County Emergency Communications District Board, the Hawkins County Emergency Management Agency, and Hawkins County, Tennessee. Mrs. Lawson alleged that grossly negligent and reckless conduct by these governmental entities and their employees caused her husband’s death.
Under a legal doctrine known as sovereign immunity, governmental entities ordinarily are immune from suit. But the Tennessee Governmental Tort Liability Act removes the immunity of local governments for certain “negligent” acts and omissions.
All three defendants argued that they were immune from suit because the Act removes immunity only for claims alleging ordinary negligence, not gross negligence or recklessness. The defendants also invoked a different legal doctrine—the public-duty doctrine—as an additional basis for immunity. The trial court ruled in favor of the defendants and dismissed the case with prejudice.
Mrs. Lawson appealed, and the Court of Appeals reversed. Reasoning that ordinary negligence is a “subspecies” of gross negligence and recklessness, the Court of Appeals held that the term “negligent” in the Act’s removal provision includes gross negligence and recklessness in addition to ordinary negligence. The Court of Appeals held that Mrs. Lawson’s claims could proceed under the Act because she had sufficiently alleged claims for gross negligence and recklessness. The court further held that the public-duty doctrine did not bar Mrs. Lawson’s suit because her allegations of gross negligence and recklessness were sufficient to trigger an exception to the doctrine.
The Supreme Court gave the governmental entities permission to appeal. Because the Act does not define the term “negligent,” the Supreme Court examined the common-law understanding of the term and the broader statutory context and concluded that “negligent” in the Act’s removal provision means ordinary negligence, not gross negligence or recklessness. The Court reversed the judgment of the Court of Appeals to the extent it held otherwise and remanded the action for further proceedings.
Justice Holly Kirby concurred but wrote separately. In her separate opinion, Justice Kirby discusses the “Rubik’s cube effect” caused by the Court’s earlier decision to retain the public-duty doctrine and its related exceptions after enactment of the Act. She would be willing to reconsider that decision in a future case.
To read the Court’s unanimous opinion, authored by Justice Sarah K. Campbell, as well as the concurring opinion by Justice Holly Kirby, visit the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.