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§15.20 Fault of Plaintiff’s Employer or Co-Employee

The Case : Snyder v. LTG Lufttechnische Gmbh, 955 S.W.2d 252 (Tenn. 1997).

The Basic Facts: Plaintiff brought a products liability action in federal court against the manufacturer and seller of a cotton baler for personal injuries based on negligence and strict liability. Defendants argued that plaintiff's employer's conduct rendered the baler defective or unreasonably dangerous.

The Bottom Line:

  • "[T]his Court has accepted two questions certified to us by the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee. The questions are as follows:
    1. Whether products liability defendants in a suit for personal injuries based on allegations of negligence and strict liability in tort may introduce evidence at trial that the plaintiff's employer's alteration, change, improper maintenance, or abnormal use of the defendants' product proximately caused or contributed to the plaintiff's injuries."
    2. If "no," of what effect is Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-28-108?"
    955 S.W.2d at 253.
  • "The defendants in Ridings, like the defendants here, wanted the jury to assess fault against the employer by arguing that the employer's actions were the proximate, or legal, cause of the plaintiff's injuries. Of course, the employer cannot be found to be the proximate, or legal, cause of the plaintiff's injuries because the employer is immune from tort liability under Tenn. Code Ann. § 50-6-108(a). By enacting Tenn. Code Ann. § 50-6-108(a), the legislature has already determined that for policy reasons the employer may not be the legal cause of the plaintiff's injuries." Id. at 256.
  • "This is not to say, however, that the employer cannot be found by the trier of fact to have been the cause in fact of the plaintiff's injuries. FN6 If the rule were otherwise, the defendants would effectively be precluded from presenting a defense. A defense that the product was not defective or unreasonably dangerous when it left the defendants' control would not be credible unless the defendants were permitted to introduce evidence as to what actually happened to the product leading up to the incident that injured the plaintiff. Excising the employer from that discussion would be tantamount to drawing a line which would make discussion of the case to be tried difficult, if not impossible.FN7 The end result would be that the jury would not hear evidence of the true facts surrounding the product that caused the plaintiff's injuries but, nonetheless, be asked to determine fault and hence liability for damages. Prohibiting the introduction of such evidence could result in a defendant, who was not the cause in fact of the plaintiff's injuries, being required to pay for the harm anyway.
    FN6 The distinction between cause in fact and proximate, or legal, cause is not merely an exercise in semantics. The terms are not interchangeable. Although both cause in fact and proximate, or legal, cause are elements of negligence that the plaintiff must prove, they are very different concepts. Ridings, 914 S.W.2d at 83; Kilpatrick v. Bryant, 868 S.W.2d 594, 598 (Tenn. 1993). Cause in fact refers to the cause and effect relationship between the defendant's tortious conduct and the plaintiff's injury or loss. Thus, cause in fact deals with the 'but for' consequences of an act. The defendant's conduct is a cause of the event if the event would not have occurred but for that conduct. Kilpatrick, 868 S.W.2d at 598. In contrast, proximate cause, or legal cause, concerns a determination of whether legal liability should be imposed where cause in fact has been established. Id. Proximate or legal cause is a policy decision made by the legislature or the courts to deny liability for otherwise actionable conduct based on considerations of logic, common sense, policy, precedent and 'our more or less inadequately expressed ideas of what justice demands or of what is administratively possible and convenient.' Bain v. Wells, 936 S.W.2d 618, 625 (Tenn. 1997); George v. Alexander , 931 S.W.2d 517, 521 (Tenn. 1996); Kilpatrick, 868 S.W.2d at 598; Smith v. Gore, 728 S.W.2d 738, 749 (Tenn. 1987).

    FN7 For example, in the present case, the defendants would be restricted from presenting evidence that the plaintiff's employer altered, changed, or improperly maintained the cotton bailer that injured the plaintiff by removing the metal panel that covered the area into which the plaintiff stuck his arm."
    Id . at 256.
  • "In light of the foregoing discussion, our answer to the first certified question is that products liability defendants in a suit for personal injuries based on allegations of negligence and strict liability in tort may introduce relevant evidence at trial that the plaintiff's employer's alteration, change, improper maintenance, or abnormal use of the defendant's product was the cause in fact of the plaintiff's injuries. Put another way, the jury may consider all evidence relevant to the event leading up to the incident that injured the plaintiff. The defendants may not, however, ask the jury to assign fault to the employer. That is, the defendants may not take the legal position that the employer's actions were the legal cause of the plaintiff's injuries. The jury should be instructed that it may consider the actions of the employer only in assessing whether the plaintiff has met his burden of establishing the elements necessary to recover against the defendants. Also, the jury should be instructed that it may not, in making that determination, assess fault against the employer. Finally, the trial judge should give an instruction that lets the jury know that the employer's legal responsibility will be determined at a later time or has already been determined in another forum." Id. at 256-57.

Other Sources of Note: Troup v. Fischer Steel Corporation , No. W 2005-00913-COA-R3CV), 236 S.W.3d 143 (Tenn. 2007) (holding Synder is also applicable to statutory employers; defense that an employer's conduct was the cause of plaintiff's injury is an "all or nothing" defense); Ridings v. Ralph M. Parsons Co., 914 S.W.2d 79 (Tenn. 1996) (fault may not be assessed against plaintiff's employer in a third party action arising from an on-the-job injury).

Recent Cases:  Clawson v. Burrow, 327 S.W.3d 638 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2010) (holding workers’ compensation exclusivity of remedies barred claim against employer for wrongful death of employee when on employer’s premises after work was concluded for the day).

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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