Tennessee Court Applies Governmental Immunity Act To Deny Claim for Negligence

Rarely is the identity of a defendant more important than when the defendant is a governmental actor. Many states, including Tennessee, have developed unique rules and requirements that apply to personal injury claims brought against governmental actors, in large part to protect them from liability. Since governments provide such a wide range of services and are involved in providing amenities that affect the day-to-day activities of many citizens, they are often at risk of lawsuits. Special governmental immunity statutes like Tennessee’s Governmental Tort Liability Act protect governments from litigation when they are operating in the normal course of their functions. If plaintiffs do not meet the unique requirements of these statutes, they are at risk of having their lawsuits thrown out based on this immunity. A recent case before the Tennessee Court of Appeals illustrates this risk.

In this Tennessee property damage case, J.T. brought claims against the Trousdale County Highway Department for damage to his home that he alleged he experienced as a result of the Highway Department’s efforts to fix a road in front of his house. According to J.T., the Highway Department used a vibratory drum compactor near his house, and the strong and significant vibrations caused damage to his exterior and interior, including vaporizing the brick exterior of his house, causing damage to the foundation, and affecting the drywall inside his home. Although J.T. experienced these damages shortly after the Highway Department’s work occurred, he did not file his lawsuit until almost three years later, shortly before the statute of limitations was to expire.

The Highway Department immediately responded to J.T.’s complaint with a motion to dismiss, arguing that J.T.’s claims were subject to the Governmental Tort Liability Act (GTLA) and were therefore time-barred under the GTLA. The lower court agreed and dismissed the case. J.T. appealed.

On appeal, J.T. argued that his claims should not be subject to the GTLA and were not time-barred. The Highway Department, in contrast, argued that since J.T’s claims were against a governmental agency and fell within a special waiver of immunity for governmental actions, they were subject to the GTLA and were also subject to special time restrictions requiring that all claims must be brought within 12 months after the cause of action arises, which J.T. did not do.

The Court of Appeals agreed with the Highway Department. Under the GTLA, governmental agencies have governmental immunity for claims arising out of the exercise and discharge of their governmental functions. However, the GTLA waives immunity under limited circumstances, but with strict procedural requirements. Here, immunity is waived for injuries resulting from the negligent operation of governmental equipment within the scope of employment. However, in order to have such immunity waived, a plaintiff must bring his or her claim within 12 months after the cause of action arises. This requirement is strictly interpreted. Here, J.T. alleged injuries resulting from the Highway Department’s negligent operation of its vibratory drum compactor, but he did not bring those claims within the required 12-month period. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals agreed with the Highway Department that the claims were time-barred. Based on this conclusion, it upheld the lower court’s decision to dismiss.

Negligence and personal injury claims against governmental entities are traps for the unwary, as the above case illustrates. Plaintiffs seeking to hold government agencies or their employees liable for their injuries must pay careful attention to the unique notice, service, and time frame requirements that governmental immunity statutes may impose. An experienced Tennessee personal injury attorney like Eric Beasley can take the guesswork out of filing a complaint by guiding you through the GTLA process and making sure that you meet all of the required deadlines. For more information on seeking redress and compensation for your injuries, contact the Law Office of Eric Beasley today at 615-859-2223.

Related Blog Posts:

According to Tennessee Court, City Governments Mostly Immune From Liability for Prison Work Details, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, July 27, 2017

Immunity from Tennessee Governmental Tort Immunity Act for Discretionary Actions, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, December 20, 2016.

Immunity From Personal Injury Claims for Contractors – Black v. Dixie, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, September 7, 2016.