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Court of Appeals Holds that Tennessee Claims Commission Had Jurisdiction Over Case Arising from Negligent Supervision and Retention of State Employee

Knoxville personal injury cases in which a government entity is named as a defendant proceed differently from claims against businesses or individuals. Recovering fair compensation in such cases can be more difficult than in other personal injury cases, since different rules apply.

Generally, cases in which the State of Tennessee is a defendant must be filed in the Tennessee Claims Commission, rather than in the circuit court of the county where the alleged act of negligence took place.

If a plaintiff is successful in the claims commission, he or she can recover monetary damages against the State but only up to an amount set by statute. No punitive damages can be awarded, and the plaintiff must bear all of his or her litigation costs. (Sometimes costs are shifted to the losing party in other cases.)

Facts of the Case

In a recently decided case, the plaintiffs were a husband and wife who sought monetary compensation from the defendant, the State of Tennessee, for injuries the wife sustained after she was allegedly sexually assaulted by a state employee. The plaintiffs originally filed their claim in the Tennessee Claims Commission, seeking both injunctive relief and compensatory damages. According to the plaintiffs, the State was liable for negligently supervising and retaining the employee who committed the assault. The Commission dismissed the case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The plaintiffs then appealed their case to the Court of Appeals of Tennessee at Nashville.

(Meanwhile, the plaintiffs filed a separate action directly against the state employee in the Circuit Court of Davidson County, but they were not allowed to pursue that case unless and until the Commission determined that the employee acted outside the scope of his employment.)

Decision of the Appeals Court

The court reversed the Commission’s decision dismissing the plaintiffs’ complaint. The court then remanded the case back to the Commission for further proceedings. The court began by observing that the State had based its motion to dismiss on the assertion that the Commission lacked jurisdiction because the State of Tennessee cannot be held liable for the “willful, malicious, or criminal acts” of state employees; the State also alleged that the Commission lacked jurisdiction over negligent supervision and retention claims.

In Tennessee, an appellate court reviews issues concerning the subject matter jurisdiction of the Claims Commission de novo – with no presumption of correctness. Under the Tennessee Claims Commission Act, the Commission possesses exclusive jurisdiction over monetary claims against the State, as long as the acts or omissions of state employees fit within the categories set forth in the statute. Concluding that the plaintiffs’ claim fell within the “negligent care, custody, and control of persons” category of the statute, the court found that the Claims Commission erred in dismissing the plaintiffs’ claim for lack of jurisdiction.

The court rejected the State’s argument that the plaintiffs were making a “back-door attempt to circumvent the State’s immunity,” noting that the Act did not specifically retain immunity for claims arising out of or resulting from willful, malicious, or criminal acts, such as the alleged assault suffered by the plaintiffs. The court noted that it was to “liberally construe” the sweeping abrogation of sovereign immunity in the Act.

Talk to a Knoxville Personal Injury Attorney

If you or a loved one is suffering because of an act of negligence committed by a governmental employee, an individual, or a business, you need dependable legal advice. The Hartsoe Law Firm, P.C., represents many Knoxville and Maryville accident victims in personal injury claims. Call us at 865-524-5657 to schedule a complimentary consultation. We can travel to your home for the appointment, if you are unable to come into our offices.

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