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§42.7 Discovery Rule in Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress Cases

The Case: Leach v. Taylor , 124 S.W.3d 87 (Tenn. 2004).

The Basic Facts: Plaintiffs, children of a deceased man, signed a consent to allow the harvest of some of their father's organs by a hospital. The Defendant funeral home received the body after the harvesting and proceeded with the embalming process. After doing so, Defendants made a series of distressing statements to the children about the state of the body and the extent of damage that had been incurred due to the harvesting process. Plaintiffs assert that these statements ultimately proved to be untrue and brought an action for negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The Bottom Line:

  • "As a threshold matter, we address Defendants' argument that Plaintiffs' claim is time-barred because the discovery rule does not apply to toll the statute of limitations in this case." 124 S.W.3d at 90.
  • "In support of this argument, Defendants rely upon Quality Auto Parts Co. v. Bluff City Buick Co., 876 S.W.2d 818 (Tenn. 1994) (" Quality Auto"), in which this Court considered whether the discovery rule applies to slander actions. In that case, we explained that the discovery rule:
    provides that the statute of limitations begins to run when the injury is discovered, or in the exercise of reasonable care and diligence, the injury should have been discovered. The rule responds to the unfairness of "requiring that he [a plaintiff] sue to vindicate a non-existent wrong, at a time when injury is unknown and unknowable....

    In contrast to the rationale for the discovery rule are policy reasons for the development of statutes of limitations to ensure fairness to the defendant by preventing undue delay in bringing suits on claims, and by preserving evidence so that facts are not obscured by the lapse of time or the defective memory or death of a witness.
    Id . at 820 (quoting Teeters v. Currey, 518 S.W.2d 512, 515 (Tenn. 1974))." Id.
  • "We emphasized that '[w]hen determining whether to apply the discovery rule, this court considers the specific statutory language at issue, and balances the policies furthered by application of the discovery rule against the legitimate policies upon which statutes of limitations are based.' Id. Using this analysis, we held in Quality Auto that the discovery rule may not be applied to extend the six-month statute of limitations for slander actions. In so holding, we noted that the injury to reputation is complete at the moment the slanderous words are uttered, and that policies of preventing stale claims and preserving evidence, upon which statutes of limitations are based, are especially applicable to slander actions because of the intangible nature of the evidence and the injury. Id. at 822." Id.
  • "In this appeal, Defendants urge this Court to extend the rationale of Quality Auto and hold that the discovery rule does not apply to cases involving false oral statements. We decline to do so. When we balance the policies furthered by application of the discovery rule in this case against the legitimate policies upon which the statute of limitations is based, we find that the application of the discovery rule is appropriate. As noted in Quality Auto, slander actions are governed by a six-month statute of limitations which expressly declares that the time for filing suit begins to run at the moment the words are uttered. Tenn. Code Ann. § 28-3-103 (2000). This shortened, specific limitations period reflects the legislature's judgment that special circumstances surround a claim for slander that call for a shorter limitations period than most other torts. In contrast, intentional infliction of emotional distress is a personal injury tort, governed by the general one-year statute of limitations. Tenn. Code Ann. § 28-3-104 (2000). There is no language in this statute of limitations precluding application of the discovery rule. Indeed, the discovery rule is routinely applied to determine when a cause of action accrues under this statute. See Lane-Detman, L.L.C. v. Miller & Martin, 82 S.W.3d 284, 294 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2002), Miller v. Niblack, 942 S.W.2d 533, 540 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1996), Gosnell v. Ashland Chem., Inc., 674 S.W.2d 737, 739 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1984). Furthermore, unlike slander, the nature of the elements of the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress do not militate against application of the discovery rule. Finally, from the record on appeal, it does not appear that the facts of this particular case make the application of the discovery rule unjust. Defendants were aware of Plaintiffs' initial lawsuit against the medical entities and that Plaintiffs were relying on the truth of Defendants' statements in that action. There is simply no basis for holding that the discovery rule does not apply as a matter of law in this case." Id. at 90-91.

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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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