Tennessee Supreme Court Interprets Important Statute Governing Comparative Fault Claims Against Non-Party Tortfeasors

Becker v. Ford Motor Co., 2014 Tenn. LEXIS 191 (Tenn. Mar. 7, 2014)

To allege the fault of a non-party tortfeasor under Tennessee’s doctrine of modified comparative fault, the defendant must plead the non-party’s fault in its Answer or amendment thereto. Both the claim and the identity of the non-party tortfeasor must be pled with specificity. Once the non-party is named, the plaintiff has 90 days under Tenn. Code Ann. § 20-1-119 to add the non-party, even if the statute of limitations on the claim against the non-party tortfeasor has expired.

The prevailing understanding was that in order for the plaintiff to be afforded the 90 day extension of the statute of limitations, the non-party must have been unknown to the plaintiff when the original complaint was filed. However, this prevailing wisdom was not founded in the plain reading of Tenn. Code Ann. § 20-1-119 or the controlling authority from the State of Tennessee. Apparently, the mistake in understanding was injected into Tennessee law by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. This opinion was adopted in several intermediate appellate court decisions before the Tennessee Court of Appeals held that Tenn. Code Ann. § 20-1-119 made “no reference to the plaintiff’s diligence in discovering the identity of potentially liable parties” and, therefore, that “a plaintiff’s knowledge of the existence of other persons who might be liable for plaintiff’s injuries is irrelevant…” Townes v. Sunbeam Oster Co., 50 S.W.3d 446, 452 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2001). In spite of the holding of Townes, the Sixth Circuit continued to perpetuate the misreading of Tenn. Code Ann. § 20-1-119.

The Tennessee Supreme Court finally settled the confusion when it accepted a certified question from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee.  The Court affirmed the prior holding of the Tennessee Court of Appeals and held that the 90 day extension of the statute of limitations applies to any non-party for which the defendant alleges comparative fault under Tenn. Code Ann. § 20-1-119 regardless of whether the identity of the non-party was known to the plaintiff when the original complaint was filed.

Sean W. Martin, is a shareholder in the Chattanooga, Tennessee office of Carr Allison.  Sean can be reached at swmartin@carrallison.com or (423) 648-9834.

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