§15.16 Effect of Co-Tortfeasor Committing Intentional Wrong

The Case: Limbaugh v. Coffee Medical Center , 59 S.W.3d 73 (Tenn. 2001).

The Basic Facts: Plaintiff, originally acting as the conservator for his mother, filed suit against Defendant medical center and its employee, a nursing assistant, to recover damages for his mother's injuries when she was assaulted by the nursing assistant.

The Bottom Line:

  • "The final issue presented for our review is whether the trial court erred in apportioning fault between the negligent and intentional defendants where the intentional conduct was the foreseeable risk created by the negligent nursing home.FN9 This question is one of first impression and requires us to review our holding in Turner v. Jordan, 957 S.W.2d 815 (Tenn. 1997).
    FN9 Interestingly, the issue of Ms. Ray's immunity from suit for her tortious actions committed as a governmental employee has not been raised in the trial court, the Court of Appeals, or in this Court. Therefore, any claims for Ms. Ray's immunity made pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated § 29-20-310(b) ("No claim may be brought against an employee or judgment entered against an employee for damages for which the immunity of the governmental entity is removed by this chapter unless the claim is one for medical malpractice brought against a health care practitioner. . . .") have been waived."
    59 S.W.3d at 86.
  • "In Turner, the plaintiff, a hospital nurse, was assaulted and severely injured by Tarry Williams, a mentally ill patient in the hospital where she worked. Dr. Jordan, Williams's treating psychiatrist, had diagnosed his patient as 'aggressive, grandiose, intimidating, combative, and dangerous,' id. at 817 (emphasis omitted), but he nevertheless decided to discharge him from the hospital by 'allowing him to sign out AMA [Against Medical Advice].' Id. (alteration in original). After her attack, the plaintiff brought suit against Dr. Jordan, alleging that he violated his duty to use reasonable care in the treatment of his patient, which proximately caused her injuries and resulting damages. After determining that the psychiatrist did indeed owe a duty of care to the plaintiff nurse because he knew or should have known that his patient posed 'an unreasonable risk of harm to a foreseeable, readily identifiable third person,' id. at 821, we then held that the 'conduct of a negligent defendant should not be compared with the intentional conduct of another in determining comparative fault where the intentional conduct is the foreseeable risk created by the negligent tortfeasor.' Id. at 823." Id.
  • "We held the defendant responsible for the entire amount of the plaintiff's damages for several reasons. First, we determined that the legal conception of 'fault' necessarily precluded the allocation of fault between negligent and intentional actors because 'negligent and intentional torts are different in degree, in kind, and in society's view of the relative culpability of each act.' Id.FN10 Second, we expressed our concern that allowing comparison would reduce the negligent person's incentive to comply with the applicable duty of care and thus prevent further wrongdoing. Id. Finally, we recognized that when a defendant breaches a duty to prevent the foreseeable risk of harm by a nonparty intentional actor, that negligent co-tortfeasor cannot reduce his or her liability by relying on the foreseeable risk of harm that he or she had a duty to prevent. Id.
    FN10 As aptly expressed by the dissenting opinion in a case decided by the Wyoming Supreme Court,
    The law of intentional torts constitutes a separate world of legal culpability. It is a system that balances specific rights and obligations, and imposes liability on the basis of a party's intent, rather than the moral blameworthiness of that party's conduct by societal standards. The real qualitative distinctions between intentional torts and other forms of culpable conduct share a single origin-the 'duty' concept. Intentional torts are dignitary by nature. They are designed to protect one's right to be free from unpermitted intentional invasions of person or property. Alternatively, the duty underlying an action in negligence or strict products liability is to avoid causing, be it by conduct or by product, an unreasonable risk of harm to others within the range of proximate cause foreseeability. These distinct worlds of culpability cannot be reconciled.
    Mills v. Reynolds , 807 P.2d 383, 403 (Wyo. 1991) (Urbigkit, C.J., dissenting)."
    Id . at 86-87.
  • "The present case presents a different factual setting. Unlike Turner, the plaintiff here has brought a cause of action against all tortfeasors whose unreasonable acts have contributed to the elderly resident's injuries. Consequently, we are required to determine how to assign causal responsibility between negligent and intentionally tortious defendants where the intentional misconduct is the foreseeable risk created by the negligent defendant. We continue to adhere to the principle established in Turner that the conduct of a negligent defendant should not be compared with the intentional conduct of a nonparty tortfeasor in apportioning fault where the intentional conduct is the foreseeable risk created by the negligent tortfeasor. Id.; see also White v. Lawrence, 975 S.W.2d 525, 531 (Tenn. 1998) (holding that the defendant physician's liability would not be reduced by comparing his negligent conduct with the decedent's intentional act of committing suicide since the intentional act was a foreseeable risk created by the defendant's negligence). After careful consideration, we conclude that where the intentional actor and the negligent actor are both named defendants and each are found to be responsible for the plaintiff's injuries, then each defendant will be jointly and severally responsible for the plaintiff's total damages. See generally [Restatement (Third) of Torts] § 24 (1999). Therefore, both CMC and Ms. Ray are each liable for all of the plaintiff's damages.FN11
    FN11 Although statutory principles of contribution and indemnity apply, there is 'no right of contribution in favor of any tort-feasor who has intentionally caused or contributed to the injury.' Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-11-102(c)."
    Id . at 87.
  • "Although our adoption of comparative fault abrogated the use of the doctrine of joint and several liability in those cases where the defendants are charged with separate, independent acts of negligence, see McIntyre v. Balentine, 833 S.W.2d 52, 58 (Tenn. 1992), the doctrine continues to be an integral part of the law in certain limited instances. See Owens v. Truckstops of Am., 915 S.W.2d 420, 431 n.13, 432 (applying joint and several liability to parties in the chain of distribution of a product when the theory of recovery is strict liability); see also Resolution Trust Corp. v. Block, 924 S.W.2d 354, 355-56 (Tenn. 1996) (holding the officer and director jointly and severally liable to the corporation for their collective actions). We believe that in the context of a negligent defendant failing to prevent foreseeable intentional conduct, the joint liability rule 'is a very reasonable and just rule of law which compels each to assume and bear the responsibility of the misconduct of all.' Resolution Trust Corp., 924 S.W.2d at 356. Consequently, we reverse the trial court's apportionment of fault and hold that CMC and Louise Ray are jointly and severally liable for the full amount of damages awarded to Mr. Limbaugh. However, because the trial court incorrectly apportioned damages between the two tortfeasors, we remand this case to the Circuit Court for Coffee County to determine the total amount of damages for which each tortfeasor shall be jointly and severally liable." Id. at 87-88.

Recent Cases: Dean v. Weakley County Bd. of Educ. , No. W2007-00159-COA-R3-CV, 2008 WL 948882 (Tenn. Ct. App. Apr. 9, 2008) (holding public duty doctrine did not apply to school because school's duty was not to public at large; rather, schools have a duty to exercise reasonable care to supervise and protect students from injury, including the intentional acts of third parties).

After an accident, many injury victims and their families want more information on the accident and their legal rights. Consequently, many of them have found their way to these pages. While we are happy you are here, please understand Day on Torts: Leading Cases in Tennessee Tort Law was written to be a quick, invaluable reference for Tennessee tort lawyers. While the book provides the leading case for more than 300 tort law subjects and thousands of related case citations, it is not a substitute for personalized legal advice from a qualified lawyer.

Rather than researching these legal issues alone, we urge you to contact one of our award-winning lawyers who can sit down with you, review your case, answer your questions and clearly explain your rights and your options in a no-cost, no-obligation consultation. Our experienced attorneys handle all personal injury and wrongful death cases on a contingency basis, so we only get paid if we win. If for any reason you are unable to come to our office, we will gladly come to you.

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The foregoing is an excerpt from Day on Torts: Leading Cases in Tennessee Tort Law, published by John A. Day, Civil Trial Specialist, Fellow in the American College of Trial Lawyers, recipient of Best Lawyers in America recognition, Martindale-Hubbell AV® Preeminent™ rated attorney, and Top 100 Tennessee Mid-South Super Lawyers designee. Read John’s full bio here.

To order a copy of the book, visit www.dayontortsbook.com. John also blogs regularly on key issues for tort lawyers. To subscribe to the Day on Torts blog, visit www.dayontorts.com.

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