§49.10 Overcoming Statutory Presumption of Agency

The Case: Godfrey v. Ruiz , 90 S.W.3d 692 (Tenn. 2002).

The Basic Facts: Plaintiff brought a personal injury claim against the driver and owners of a van they allege ran a red light and collided with Plaintiffs' vehicle, causing injuries to Plaintiffs. Plaintiffs were unable to locate and serve the driver of the van.

The Bottom Line:

  • "We hold that an owner's offer of testimony negating the issue of agency, standing alone, cannot overcome the prima facie evidence created by Tennessee Code Annotated section 55‑10‑311(a)." 90 S.W.3d at 694.
  • "This case turns on the application of Tennessee Code Annotated section 55‑10‑311(a) (1998), which provides in pertinent part:
    In all actions for injury to persons and/or to property caused by the negligent operation or use of any automobile . . . within this state, proof of ownership of such vehicle shall be prima facie evidence that the vehicle at the time of the cause of action sued on was being operated and used with authority, consent and knowledge of the owner in the very transaction out of which the injury or cause of action arose, and such proof of ownership likewise shall be prima facie evidence that the vehicle was then and there being operated by the owner, or by the owner's servant, for the owner's use and benefit and within the course and scope of the servant's employment.
    (emphasis added)." Id. at 695.
  • "In Warren v. Estate of Kirk, this Court's most recent case construing Tennessee Code Annotated section 55‑10‑311(a), we reiterated that '[s]ummary judgment is not ordinarily the proper procedure for determining whether a prima facie case has or has not been overcome by countervailing evidence.' 954 S.W.2d 722, 724 (Tenn. 1997) (quoting Hamrick, 708 S.W.2d at 388). In both Hamrick andWarren, we reversed the grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendant. In this case, too, summary judgment is unwarranted." Id. at 695-96.
  • "The plaintiffs in this case are entitled to rely solely on the owner-driver agency relationship created by Tennessee Code Annotated section 55‑10‑311(a) to overcome the defendants' motion for summary judgment. Although the defendants offer uncontroverted testimony in support of their motion for summary judgment, their status as interested witnesses places their credibility in question. The defendants' uncorroborated testimony that Mr. Corpus was not a permissive user simply fails to rebut the prima facie evidence established by statute. Therefore, their motion for summary judgment was improperly granted." Id. at 696.
  • "There may be rare cases involving the application of Tennessee Code Annotated section 55‑10‑311 in which summary judgment is appropriate. As we noted in Hamrick, '[t]here may be some instances where summary disposition could be warranted.' 708 S.W.2d at 389. Thus, we do not hold that proof of ownership is always sufficient to overcome summary judgment, regardless of the facts presented by the defendants. Moreover, as we explained in Warren,
    [t]he overruling of a motion for summary judgment does not necessarily mean that the case will go to a jury at a trial, because the evidence adduced at trial may be significantly different from that contained in affidavits or depositions heard pre-trial on summary judgment proceedings. All that the overruling of a motion for summary judgment indicates is that the case should proceed further.
    954 S.W.2d at 724. We preserve the possibility that courts may grant summary judgment or a directed verdict on behalf of a vehicle's owner in a negligence case if the owner has provided evidence other than his own testimony that the driver was not acting as the owner's agent when the accident occurred." Id.

Other Sources of Note: Thurmon v. Sellers , 62 S.W.3d 145 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2001) (holding that the fact that an employee is "on-call" while operating his employer's vehicle does not, by itself, compel a finding that the employee was acting within the course and scope of employment when the accident occurred).

Recent Cases: 

Strine v. Walton, 323 S.W.3d 480 (Tenn. Ct. App. Apr. 15, 2010) (statutory presumptions of agency for ownership of automobile not sufficient to establish liability under family purpose doctrine).

Gray v. Mitsky , No. M2007-01414-COA-R3-CV, 2008 WL 2924978 (Tenn. Ct. App. Jul. 29, 2008) (upholding judgment of trial court finding registered owner of vehicle vicariously liable for his son's negligence).

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.

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