Tennessee Supreme Court Clarifies How to Determine the Applicable Statute of Limitations for a Case (Old Rule was “Gravaman of the Complaint”)

Posted on Feb 8 2015 11:37PM by Attorney, Jason A. Lee

The Tennessee Supreme Court in Brenda Benz-Elliott v. Barrett Enterprises, LP, No. M2013-00270-SC-R11-CV, 2015 WL 294635 (Tenn. 2015) has provided an opinion that attempts to clarify how statute of limitations should be applied for Tennessee cases.  Over the years numerous Tennessee appellate decisions have cited the “gravaman of the complaint” rule in order to determine which statute of limitations applies to a case.  (Benz-Elliott at 7, 8).  In this case, the Tennessee Supreme Court noted that defining exactly what this actually means has proven difficult over time.  If you desire to read a detailed analysis of the historical citations to this rule and the general “fuzziness” in the actual application of this rule, this case provides a lengthy discussion of these issues.  For the purposes of this blog post, however, I am mainly going to address the ultimate conclusion of the Tennessee Supreme Court that is an attempt to clarify confusing pre-existing precedent. 


Ultimately, the Tennessee Supreme Court found that when choosing the appropriate statute of limitations for a case “courts must ascertain the gravaman of each claim, not the gravaman of the complaint in its entirety.”  Benz-Elliott at 8.  The Court then found the court’s should use a specific “two-step approach” test that has previously been discussed in Tennessee decisions in order to determine the gravaman of a claim.  This holding is stated as follows: 


Today we clarify that the two-step approach articulated in Vance and applied in Alexander and Harvest Corp. is the correct framework for courts to employ when ascertaining the gravamen of a claim for the purpose of choosing the applicable statute of limitations. When utilizing this approach, a court must first consider the legal basis of the claim and then consider the type of injuries for which damages are sought. This analysis is necessarily fact-intensive and requires a careful examination of the allegations of the complaint as to each claim for the types of injuries asserted and damages sought. Contract Law and Practice § 12:78, at 595 (2006).


This case provides an important clarification from the Tennessee Supreme Court on exactly how to determine the appropriate statute of limitations for a case.  The two important takeaways from this case are (1) it is no longer the “gravaman of the complaint” taken as a whole, rather an analysis is required of the gravamen of each individual claim.  Further, (2) the “two-step approach” test that has previously been applied in prior decisions is the appropriate test to determine the “gravaman of the claim” for purposes of determining the statute of limitations. 


I think this is a more clear approach enunciated by the Tennessee Supreme Court, however, I think that there can still be quite a bit of confusion over the “two-step approach” that is articulated by the court.  The court noted that the two-step approach is a “fact intensive” examination so I believe there will be significant disputes about the proper application of the two-step approach.  Regardless, these will be largely factual determinations by the trial court’s that will likely be afforded great deference by Tennessee Appellate Courts. 


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TAGS: Statute of Limitations, Civil Procedure, Statute of Repose
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Jason A. Lee is a Member of Burrow Lee, PLLC. He practices in all areas of defense litigation inside and outside of Tennessee.

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