KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — The Tennessee Supreme Court has reversed a ruling that set precedence for how government agencies can be sued for negligence according to a release from the court.
In most cases, government entities are immune from lawsuits under the legal doctrine of Sovereign Immunity.
“But the Governmental Tort Liability Act removes immunity for certain injuries caused by the negligent acts of an employee. In this case, we consider whether the term “negligent” in the Act’s removal provision is limited to ordinary negligence or instead also encompasses gross negligence or recklessness,” the Supreme Court Opinion reads.
Under the findings of the Supreme Court, the removal provision of the act for negligence only refers to common negligence, not gross negligence or recklessness.
The case began after the death of 62-year-old Steven Lawson, who died from injuries sustained after his truck entered a chasm where the highway had collapsed in Feb. 2019. This happened because a mudslide destroyed part of Highway 70 on Clinch Mountain in Hawkins County.
Lawson’s wife, Penny Lawson, filed a lawsuit against the Hawkins County Emergency Communications District Board, the Hawkins County Emergency Management Agency, and Hawkins County, Tennessee. Lawson alleged that the entities were grossly negligent and their reckless conduct caused her husband’s death.
In the trial court, the defendants successfully argued that they were immune from the suit because the act only removes immunity for claims that allege ordinary negligence, not gross negligence or reckless conduct. The court said they also argued that they had immunity through the public-duty doctrine, which Washington Law explains requires a person to prove that the government entity breached a duty owed specifically to them and not just a breach of duty to the public.
Lawson took the case to a Court of Appeals, where the dismissal from the first court was reversed. According to the release, the Court of Appeals reasoned that the term “negligence” included gross negligence and recklessness and that Lawson had sufficiently alleged claims for gross negligence and recklessness.
The release states that the Supreme Court gave the government entities permission to appeal the ruling, and the Supreme Court’s ruling reversed the Court of Appeals Ruling because the Tennessee Governmental Tort Liability Act does not define the term “negligent.”
According to the release, through the common-law understanding, the supreme court concluded that “negligent” in the Act’s removal provision meant ordinary negligence, not gross negligence or recklessness like the Court of Appeal said.
Read the full court opinion below.
“Thus, even before our decision here, layering the common law public duty doctrine and the special duty exception on top of the GTLA and other immunity statutes meant that plaintiffs in lawsuits alleging misconduct by employees of governmental entities must navigate a labyrinth of confusing and at times conflicting statutory and common law standards. Unfortunately, that Rubik’s cube effect is not improved by our holding in this appeal, interpreting the GTLA to remove immunity for negligence by an employee of a governmental entity, but not for the employee’s gross negligence or recklessness,” the Supreme Court concurring opinion reads.