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§15.2 Addition of Defendants After Expiration of Statute of Limitations (Tenn. Code Ann.§ 20-1-119)

The Case:  Townes v. Sunbeam Oster Co., Inc., 50 S.W.3d 446 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2001).


The Basic Facts:  Plaintiffs purchased a propane-fueled grill and noticed it was malfunctioning when they attempted to use it.  Plaintiffs attempted to empty the propane tank and return it to the store where it was purchased, but were injured when the gas ignited in their car en route.  Plaintiffs brought a product liability action against the manufacturer of propane grill, the grill, the manufacturer of the tank, and others.


The Bottom Line:


  • “We turn first to the Townes’ claim that they should be permitted to rely on the relation-back provisions in Tenn. R. Civ. P. 15.03 to save their new claims against Sunbeam from the fatal operation of the statute of limitations.”  50 S.W.3d at 450.
  • “The courts should construe Tenn. R. Civ. P. 15.03 liberally to promote the consideration of claims on their merits.  Floyd v. Rentrop, 675 S.W.2d 165, 168 (Tenn. 1984); McCracken v. Brentwood United Methodist Church, 958 S.W.2d 792, 794 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1997).  However, Tenn. R. Civ. P. 15.03 should not be used to breathe life into claims that are plainly time-barred.  Turner v. Aldor Co. of Nashville, Inc., 827 S.W.2d 318, 321-22 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1991).”  Id. at 450-451.


  • “The purpose of Tenn. R. Civ. P. 15.03 is to enable parties to correct the “mislabeling of a party they intended to sue,” Grantham v. Jackson-Madison County Gen. Hosp. Dist., 954 S.W.2d 36, 38 (Tenn. 1997), not to add a new party who was simply overlooked.  Rainey Bros. Constr. Co. v. Memphis & Shelby County Bd. of Adjustment, 821 S.W.2d 938, 941 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1991); Smith v. Southeastern Props., Ltd., 776 S.W.2d 106, 109 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1989).  Thus, the rule does not apply when a plaintiff seeks to amend its complaint to add a defendant that it previously nonsuited.  Bennett v. Town & County Ford, Inc., 816 S.W.2d 52, 54 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1991).”  Id. at 451.


  • “The relation-back feature of Tenn. R. Civ. P. 15.03 does not permit a plaintiff to renew its suit against a defendant after the plaintiff has voluntarily dismissed its original claims against the defendant in accordance with Tenn. R. Civ. P. 41.01.”  Id.


  • “The Townes also assert that the trial court erred by refusing to permit them to amend their complaint pursuant to Tenn. Code Ann. § 20-1-119 to add Sunbeam as a defendant after Manchester’s answer to their second amended complaint named Sunbeam as an entity who caused or contributed to their injuries.  The trial court held that Tenn. Code Ann. § 20-1-119 did not apply because Sunbeam was not an “unknown entity” to the Townes when Manchester named Sunbeam as a comparative tortfeasor in its answer.  We have determined that the trial court interpreted Tenn. Code Ann. § 20-1-119 too narrowly.”  Id.


  • “Tenn. Code Ann. § 20-1-119 makes no reference to a plaintiff’s diligence in discovering the identity of potentially liable parties.  The statute provides a plaintiff with a ninety-day window within which to assert a claim against a comparative tortfeasor as long as two conditions are met.  The first condition is that one of the defendants must name the comparative tortfeasor as one who ‘caused or contributed to the injury or damage for which the plaintiff seeks recovery.’  The second condition is that the named comparative tortfeasor is ‘not a party to the suit.’  In light of the plain language of Tenn. Code Ann. § 20-1-119, we conclude that a plaintiff’s knowledge of the existence of other persons who might be liable for the plaintiff’s injuries is irrelevant.FN6


FN6  The text of Tenn. Code Ann. § 20-1-119 is so clear that we need not consult its legislative history to ascertain the General Assembly’s intent.  However, the transcripts of the legislators’ discussions regarding this statute in committee and on both the House and Senate floor point to the probable source of the notion that the statute is limited to defendants unknown to the plaintiff when it filed its original complaint.  When the bill’s sponsors explained how the bill worked, they used examples featuring “phantom” or “unknown” defendants.  However, these examples were simply explanations of the most common circumstance when the proposed statute could be invoked, and, when taken in context, were not intended to limit the bill’s application.  Even if they had been, the statements of a bill’s sponsors cannot alter the plain meaning of a statute.  D. Canale & Co. v. Celauro, 765 S.W.2d 736, 738 (Tenn. 1989); BellSouth Telecomm., Inc. v. Greer, 972 S.W.2d 663, 674 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1997).”


Id. at 452-453.

  • “We affirm the October 17, 1997 order dismissing the Townes’ new claims against Sunbeam.  However, we reverse the October 29, 1997 order denying the Townes’ motion to file their third amended complaint asserting claims against Sunbeam in accordance with Tenn. Code Ann. § 20-1-119.  We remand the case to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion and tax the costs of this appeal to the Sunbeam Oster Company, Inc. for which execution, if necessary, may issue.”  Id. at 454.


Other Sources of Note:  Jones v. Professional Motorcycle Escort Service, LLC, 193 S.W.3d 564 (Tenn. 2006) (Plaintiff’s failure to comply with the strict requirements of Tenn. R. Civ. P. Rule 15 was not fatal to effort to add party defendant pursuant to Tenn. Code Ann. § 20-1-119); Curtis v. G.E. Capital Modular Space, 155 S.W.3d 877 (Tenn. 2005) (Tenn. Code Ann. § 20-1-119 will not lengthen statute of limitations when potential defendant was identified in answer to complaint filed in a worker’s compensation action);  Browder v. Morris, 975 S.W.2d 308 (Tenn. 1998) (Plaintiff permitted to add defendant’s employer as a party defendant).  The federal courts do not follow Townes, as evidenced in the opinion in Schultz v. Davis, 495 F.3d 289 (6th Cir. 2007).  Ward v. AMI SUB (SFH), Inc., 149 S.W.3d 35 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2004) (holding that a Plaintiff’s motion to amend her medical malpractice complaint after voluntarily dismissing the original physician to add another physician did not constitute compliance with statutory requirement that amended complaint be filed and served within 90 days of first answer raising issue of comparative negligence); Romine v. Fernandez, 124 S.W.3d 599 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2003) (plaintiff permitted to add new defendant in malpractice case when defendant denied performing the act he was alleged to have committed but did not specifically blame another);


Recent Cases:  Austin v. State, 222 S.W.3d 354 (Tenn. 2007) (holding Tenn. Code Ann. § 20-1-119 applies to claims against the State); Allen v. Historic Hotels of Nashville, LLC, No. M2007-02423-COA-R3-CV, 2008 WL 5169567 (Tenn. Ct. App. Dec. 9, 2008) (finding claim against defendant was time-barred because plaintiff failed to file suit within 90 days of first answer alleging fault against defendant); Grindstaff v. Bowman, No. E2007-00135-COA-R3-CV, 2008 WL 2219274 (Tenn. Ct. App. May 29, 2008) (holding that Tenn. Code Ann. § 20-1-119 only applies when a defendant alleges fault of a nonparty in an answer or amended answer and not in a separate letter to plaintiff’s counsel that is not part of a pleading); Small ex rel. Russell v. Shelby County Schools, No. W2007-00045-COA-R3-CV, 2008 WL 360925 (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 12, 2008) (upholding trial court’s decision to permit defendant to amend its answer on the fourth day of trial to include comparative fault defense and upholding apportionment of fault to plaintiff’s mother).



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.

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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.

The book is now available electronically by subscription at The new format allows us to keep the book current as new opinions are released. BirdDog Law also has John's Tennessee Law of Civil Trial and Compendium of Tennessee Tort Reform Statutes available by subscription, as well as multiple free resources to help Tennessee lawyers serve their clients

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