Tennessee Court Explains Excusable Neglect of Service in Personal Injury Cases

When initiating a lawsuit, plaintiffs have a wide variety of procedural requirements that they have to follow in order to ensure that their lawsuit is brought in a timely fashion, and the defendants receive adequate notice of the lawsuit. One of these requirements is that the plaintiff must ensure that the defendant is served with a copy of the complaint that was filed and a summons so that the defendant knows to respond to the plaintiff’s allegations.  Plaintiffs can utilize a variety of means for having a defendant served, including personally serving the defendant, using a process server company to finalize service, or having the local Sheriff’s department conduct service. No matter which method is used, the plaintiff bears the burden of ensuring that service has occurred and that proof of service has been filed with the court. When service is improper or does not occur, a lawsuit may be tossed out unless the plaintiff can provide a good excuse for the error.

In a recent Tennessee motorcycle accident case, the court looked at circumstances in which the plaintiff attempted service, but the service was never actually finalized. In that case, J.E. delivered a copy of his complaint and summons to the local Sheriff’s office for service. He also sent a courtesy copy to the defendant, P.H.’s insurer, and J.E. and the insurer had ongoing discussions about the resolution of the case. After some time had passed, J.E. realized that he had never received proof of service of the complaint on P.H. and reached out to the Sheriff’s office to inquire. The Sheriff’s office could not confirm if they had served the complaint and requested more time to look into it.

The Sheriff’s office subsequently confirmed that they had not served the complaint because they believed that it had been lost within their office. The explained that J.E. could serve a second alias complaint and summons on P.H., but first the Sheriff’s office needed to confirm in writing that the original versions were lost. Several weeks passed, and J.E. did not receive this written confirmation. Eventually, he reached back out to the Sheriff’s office, and they confirmed that the originals had been lost, and service of alias documents would be appropriate. By this time, the deadline for service had passed, and P.H. moved to dismiss the case.

In response, J.E. requested an extension of time to serve P.H., based on “excusable neglect.” In his motion, he included an affidavit explaining the circumstances involving the Sheriff’s office and explained that they had lost the documents. After reviewing the motion and the affidavit, the court granted J.E.’s request for an extension of time and denied P.H.’s motion to dismiss. P.H. appealed.

On appeal, P.H. argued that the lower court had erroneously determined that J.E.’s excusable neglect justified an extension of time to serve P.H. In Tennessee, plaintiffs may be granted an extension of time based on excusable neglect if circumstances outside the party’s control led to an inability to meet the required deadlines. In considering excusable neglect, a court must look at a variety of circumstances, including:  (1) prejudice to the party opposing the motion for an extension; (2) the length of delay and impact on the proceedings; (3) the reason the filing was late and whether it was in the filer’s control; and (4) the filer’s good or bad faith.

In this case, the lower court determined that an extension of time would not prejudice P.H. because she was, as a practical matter, on notice of the complaint, and her insurer had been in negotiations with J.E. However, the court did not consider any of the other relevant factors in determining whether excusable neglect had occurred. The Tennessee Court of Appeals held that it was an error for the lower court to fail to consider issues such as the length of delay or the good or bad faith of the filer. Accordingly, it vacated the decision and remanded back to the lower court for a complete consideration of whether excusable neglect did occur.

This case makes clear that courts understand that there may occasionally be circumstances outside a party’s control that lead the party to miss important deadlines. When this happens, courts may grant extensions of those deadlines to allow a case to continue. However, concepts like excusable neglect cannot be used to circumvent any deadline a party may have or justify bad behavior. Instead, the party seeking the extension must be able to meet the factors set forth above, including a lack of prejudice and good reason for the delay.

If you are initiating a lawsuit, it is critical that you fully understand all of the procedural obligations that you must meet and that you meet all of the relevant deadlines. Experienced motorcycle accident attorney Eric Beasley can work with you to ensure that all procedural requirements and deadlines are promptly met so that your claims may proceed without issue.  For more information, contact the Law Office of Eric Beasley today at 615-859-2223 or online.

Related Blog Posts:

Tennessee Court Reminds Plaintiffs to Be Wary of Statute of Limitations, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, January 24, 2018.

Tennessee Court Reverses Summary Judgment Ruling Based on Comparative Fault, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, October 13, 2017

Tennessee Court Employs Rule of Seven to Evaluate Comparative Negligence Claim Against Minor, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, December 13, 2016