Tennessee Supreme Court Clarifies Appellate Review Standard, Reinstates Dismissal of Wrongful Death Lawsuit

January 28, 2020

In a wrongful death case out of Hickman County, the Tennessee Supreme Court today reversed the Court of Appeals and reinstated the trial court’s pre-trial dismissal of the case for lack of proof. The Court clarified that appellate courts may reverse only if the trial court’s decision was not within the range of reasonableness.

In December 2011, Pamela Rudder was a passenger in a car that was stopped by police for a non-functioning headlight. During the stop, police found that Ms. Rudder possessed illegal drugs. She was arrested and taken to the Hickman County jail.

While in jail, Ms. Rudder began experiencing symptoms of drug withdrawal. Three days after her arrest, Ms. Rudder received treatment in the jail’s medical unit from a nurse employed by the Hickman Community Hospital. Ms. Rudder returned to her jail cell, and she was seen again by the same nurse later that same day.  Shortly after midnight that same evening, Ms. Rudder was found dead on the floor near the bed in her cell.

In 2013, Ms. Rudder’s children, plaintiffs Bonnie Harmon, Jenny Fagan, and Edward Fagan, filed this wrongful death lawsuit against the Hickman Community Hospital, claiming that its negligence resulted in the death of their mother. The plaintiffs retained a physician to testify as an expert witness that Hickman Community Hospital’s negligence caused their mother’s death.   

In April 2016, the trial court held that the physician retained by the plaintiffs did not have the expertise needed to provide expert testimony on causation. The physician was the only expert witness on causation the plaintiffs had retained, and Tennessee law requires expert witness testimony in healthcare liability actions. Consequently, the trial court granted summary judgment to the defendant and dismissed the lawsuit.

The next month, the plaintiffs filed an affidavit from another physician to testify on causation in the wrongful death lawsuit. The plaintiffs asked the trial court to amend its summary judgment order to allow the lawsuit to go forward with the testimony of the new expert witness. The trial court held that the plaintiffs were too late in offering new expert testimony and denied the plaintiffs’ motion. The plaintiffs appealed to the Court of Appeals.   

In a split ruling, the Court of Appeals reversed and reinstated the wrongful death lawsuit. The majority on the Court of Appeals felt that the plaintiffs had given sufficient reasons for not coming forward with the new expert witness sooner, and reversed the trial court’s denial of the plaintiffs’ motion to amend the dismissal order. 

The Tennessee Supreme Court granted permission to appeal. It explained that the standard appellate courts use to review motions to amend a judgment is called “abuse of discretion.” That standard means trial judges are given great discretion in deciding whether to amend a judgment such as dismissal of a lawsuit. When those decisions are appealed, appellate courts are allowed to reverse only if the trial judge “abused” his or her discretion. That means even if the appellate court might have made a different choice, it may reverse only if the trial judge’s decision was not within the “range of reasonableness.” This standard gives appropriate respect to the discretion of trial judges.

In this case, the Supreme Court found that the Court of Appeals had in effect substituted its judgment for that of the trial court. The Supreme Court held that the trial court’s decision was not outside the “range of reasonableness,” so it reversed the Court of Appeals and reinstated the trial court’s denial of the plaintiffs’ motion to amend the order dismissing the lawsuit.

To read the unanimous opinion in Bonnie Harmon, et al. v. Hickman Community Healthcare Services, Inc., authored by Justice Holly Kirby, go to the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.