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§15.4 Allocation of Fault to One Protected by Governmental Immunity

The Case : Carroll v. Whitney, 29 S.W.3d 14 (Tenn. 2000).

The Basic Facts: Parents brought medical malpractice claim against hospital, pediatrician and pediatrician's employer for the death of their 14-month-old child who died of sepsis and pneumonia. Parents filed separate claim against the state in the claims commission for the actions of two resident physicians, who as state employees were immune from suit. 29 S.W.3d at 14. The Court was asked to determine whether fault could be assigned to the immune state employees.

The Bottom Line:

  • "[W]e hold that when a defendant raises the nonparty defense in a negligence action, a jury may generally apportion fault to immune nonparties." 29 S.W.3d at 19.

  • "Although our decision today achieves a result different from Ridings and Snyder, those cases are not overruled. Rather, they remain uniquely applicable with regard to the allocation of fault to employers in workers' compensation cases. In such cases, an employer's liability is governed exclusively by the Workers' Compensation Law. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 50-6-108(a) (1999). While an employee cannot proceed with a tort action against the employer, the employee may seek damages from some person other than the employer. See § 50-6-112(a). If the employee succeeds in an action against a third party, the employer that has fully or partially paid its maximum liability for workers' compensation is entitled to a subrogation lien against the employee's recovery. See § 50-6-112(a)." Id. at 19.
  • "While our decision to depart from Ridings and Snyder is prompted primarily by the effect harmless error analysis has on our system of fault allocation, our decision is also grounded in the rationale that led to the adoption of comparative fault in the first place: fairness to the parties by linking fault with liability. In McIntyre, we rejected contributory negligence and joint and several liability in favor of comparative negligence to achieve a fairer and tighter fit between fault and liability. This 'fair and tight fit' is lost, however, when some participants to an act of negligence are excluded from the apportionment of fault." Id. at 20.
  • "In summary, we hold that when a defendant raises the nonparty defense in a negligence action, a trier of fact may allocate fault to immune nonparties. Moreover, we limit the application of our decisions in Snyder v. LTG Lufttechnische GmbH, 955 S.W.2d 252 (Tenn. 1997), and Ridings v. Ralph M. Parsons Co., 914 S.W.2d 79 (Tenn. 1996), to workers' compensation cases." Id. at 22.

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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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