Comparative Fault - Is an entity a "party to the suit" for purposes of T.C.A. § 20-1-119 after summary judgment is granted but not made final under Rule 54.02?

Posted on Jul 5 2012 1:42PM by Attorney, Jason A. Lee

The Tennessee Supreme Court, on July 3, 2012, decided the interesting comparative fault case of Davey Mann v. Alpha Tau Omega Fraternity, W2010-02316-SC-R11-CV (filed July 3, 2012).  This case provides a trip down memory lane for many attorneys with its discussion of McIntyre v. Ballentine, 833 S.W.2d 52 (Tenn. 1992) and its commentary on T.C.A. § 20-1-119.  This Tennessee Supreme Court opinion can be found at http://www.tsc.state.tn.us/sites/default/files/mannd_opn.pdf.


The key issue in this case was whether the plaintiffs could avoid a statute of limitations defense by relying upon T.C.A. § 20-1-119 when plaintiff filed a complaint against a defendant who had been dismissed on summary judgment.  However, the dismissal order had not yet been made final under Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 54.02.  The question therefore was whether that defendant was considered a "party" under T.C.A. § 20-1-119, which provides in pertinent part as follows: 


(a) In civil actions where comparative fault is or becomes an issue, if a defendant named in an original complaint initiating a suit filed within the applicable statute of limitations, or named in an amended complaint filed within the applicable statute of limitations, alleges in an answer or amended answer to the original or amended complaint that a person not a party to the suit caused or contributed to the injury or damage for which the plaintiff seeks recovery, and if the plaintiff's cause or causes of action against that person would be barred by any applicable statute of limitations but for the operation of this section, the plaintiff may, within ninety (90) days of the filing of the first answer or first amended answer alleging that person's fault, either:

(1) Amend the complaint to add the person as a defendant pursuant to Tenn. R. Civ. P. 15 and cause process to be issued for that person; or

(2) Institute a separate action against that person by filing a summons and complaint. If the plaintiff elects to proceed under this section by filing a separate action, the complaint so filed shall not be considered an original complaint initiating the suit or an amended complaint for purposes of this subsection (a).

(b) A cause of action brought within ninety (90) days pursuant to subsection (a) shall not be barred by any statute of limitations. This section shall not extend any applicable statute of repose, nor shall this section permit the plaintiff to maintain an action against a person when such an action is barred by an applicable statute of repose. (emphasis added)


In Mann, the Tennessee Supreme Court found T.C.A. § 20-1-119 allows a plaintiff to add a comparative tortfeasor as a party after the statute of limitations has run when two conditions are met.  First, plaintiff must assert the claim against the potential tortfeasor within ninety (90) days after a defendant has named the tortfeasor (as long as the defendant was sued within the statute of limitations applicable to plaintiff's claim).  Second, that potential tortfeasor can not already be a party in the lawsuit.  Mann at p. 4 (Westlaw cite).


In the Mann case, the defendant was dismissed from the case pursuant to summary judgment (interestingly on a statute of limitations issue) but the court did not make the summary judgment order final under Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 54.02.  After this dismissal, an original defendant asserted fault against the party that was dismissed on summary judgment.  As a result, the plaintiff filed an amended complaint asserting the same claims against the dismissed defendant within the ninety (90) day time period found in T.C.A. § 50-6-119. 


The once dismissed defendant then filed another dispositive motion requesting to be dismissed from the case for a second time because the case was time barred under the statute of limitations.  Further, the defendant contended that to the extent the plaintiff relied on T.C.A. § 20-1-119 to get around the statute of limitations, it was inapplicable because the defendant was still a party to the case at the time the plaintiff amended the complaint. 


Ultimately, the Tennessee Supreme Court held that a "named defendant ceases to be a 'party to the suit' for purposes of section 20-1-119, when the trial court issues an order - whether final or interlocutory - dismissing that defendant."  Mann at p. 7 (Westlaw cite).  As a result, the Court found the defendant who was dismissed on summary judgment was not a party to the suit for purposes of T.C.A. § 20-1-119 even though it was not made final under Rule 54.02 and therefore was eligible to be brought in as a party defendant under T.C.A. § 20-1-119.


The Tennessee Supreme Court heavily relied upon the purpose and intent supporting the McIntyre decision and T.C.A. § 20-1-119 on comparative fault.  The Court noted that


“The purpose of comparative fault under McIntyre is to link one's liability to his or her degree of fault in causing a plaintiff's damages.” McNabb, 98 S.W.3d at 654 (citing McIntyre, 833 S.W.2d at 57).  This objective is greatly impaired when a nonparty appears on the jury form against whom the plaintiff has no recourse.  The purpose of section 20–1–119 is to afford plaintiffs a reasonable opportunity to bring into the lawsuit those persons to whom a timely sued defendant has attributed fault.  This linking of a defendant's ability to shift fault to a nonparty with the plaintiff's ability to join that nonparty allows for the fair and efficient resolution of tort cases in a system of comparative fault. See McIntyre, 833 S.W.2d at 58.


As a result, the Mann decision shows that T.C.A. § 20-1-119 is an effort by the legislature to allow plaintiffs to assess fault against the proper responsible parties.  Therefore, the Court interprets T.C.A. § 20-1-119 through the remedial statute lens that is intended to prevent "harsh results" and to allow plaintiffs to hold the appropriate parties responsible without being able to escape from the case based on a technicality. (See pg. 7 and 8 generally- Westlaw cite).  As a result, the remedial purpose of T.C.A. § 20-1-119 must be considered when interpreting whether this statute is complied with by a plaintiff when it adds parties that may be responsible to the plaintiff for damages.  Defense litigation attorneys should take note that the interpretation of T.C.A. § 20-1-119 will most likely be construed against the defendant where possible based on this intent.

TAGS: Tennessee Comparative Fault, Statute of Limitations, Civil Procedure, Summary Judgment
There are currently no comments associated with this article.
Post a Comment / Question
Email Address:
Email a Friend
Email this entry to:
Your email address:

Jason A. Lee is a Member of Burrow Lee, PLLC. He practices in all areas of defense litigation inside and outside of Tennessee.

Enter keywords:
Subscribe   RSS Feed
Add this blog to your feeds or subscribe by email using the form below
Copyright © 2018, Jason A. Lee. All Rights Reserved
Tennessee Defense Litigation Blog
Jason A. Lee, Member of Burrow Lee, PLLC
611 Commerce Street, Suite 2603
Nashville, TN 37203
Phone: 615-540-1004
E-mail: jlee@burrowlee.com