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From Products Liability Law Daily, March 12, 2014

Injured truck passenger could add known responsible third party after expiration of limitations period

By Pamela C. Maloney, J.D.

In response to a question certified by a federal district court in Tennessee, the Tennessee Supreme Court declared that the application of the Tennessee comparative fault statute to the joinder of tortfeasors was not restricted to tortfeasors who were unknown when a plaintiff filed the original complaint but would allow a plaintiff to file an amended complaint against a tortfeasor named by a defendant within ninety days after the filing of the answer or amended answer in which the defendant first asserted a comparative fault claim against the tortfeasor. Thus, a passenger who was injured in a collision could amend his complaint to add the driver after the vehicle’s manufacturer named the driver as a responsible third party in its answer. (Becker v. Ford Motor Co., March 7, 2014, Koch, W.).

Background. Michael S. Becker sustained several factures and a mid-thoracic spinal cord injury when a Ford F150 truck driven by his son left the road and struck a light pole. In its answer to the passenger’s claim against it, Ford Motor Co. named the passenger, his wife, and their son, who was the driver, along with known or unknown third parties, as persons who caused or brought about the accident. The passenger then filed a motion to join his son as a party to whom fault could be apportioned but Ford objected, arguing that the passenger could not invoke the comparative fault statute (Tenn. Code Ann. §20-1-119)  because the son’s identity and his role in the accident were known to the passenger before the expiration of the original statute of limitations on the passenger’s claim.  Because of the uncertainty surrounding the application of the statute by federal courts, the federal district court certified the issue of “whether after a defendant asserts a comparative fault claim against a non-party tortfeasor who was known to the plaintiff when the original suit was filed, Tenn. Code Ann.§20-1-119 permits the plaintiff to amend its complaint to assert a claim directly against the tortfeasor named by the defendant, even though the statute of limitations on that claim has expired.”

Comparative fault statute. The Tennessee Supreme Court replaced the doctrine of contributory negligence with the doctrine of comparative fault inMcIntyre v. Balentine (833 S.E.2d 52 (Tenn. 1992)) in order to enable plaintiffs to recover fully for their injuries while fairly allocating liability among the persons at fault, conserving judicial resources, and avoiding inconsistent judgments. In addition to abandoning contributory negligence, the McIntrye decision made obsolete the doctrine of joint and several liability. Sec. 20-1-119 was enacted in response to the McIntrye decision to address the circumstance in which a defendant, in its answer, asserts a comparative fault claim against a non-party after the statute of limitations has run on the plaintiff’s claim against that non-party. The purpose of the statute was to provide a plaintiff with a fair opportunity to bring before the court all persons who caused or contributed to the plaintiff’s injuries by allowing a plaintiff to amend the complaint to add any non-party alleged by a defendant to have caused or contributed to those injuries regardless of whether the applicable limitations period had run.

Construction of statute. The question of whether a plaintiff should be able to invoke §20-1-119 to file an amended complaint to add a third party defendant whom the plaintiff knew of but did not name as a defendant in the original complaint has been the subject of conflicting interpretations. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit assumed when faced with this question that the purpose of the statute was to prevent a defendant from naming and attributing fault to a previously unknown responsible party. As a result, the Sixth Circuit held that §20-1-119 was not intended to apply to a plaintiff who had knowledge that a third party might be at fault before the defendant answered the original complaint. However, when the question was considered by the Tennessee Court of Appeals, it rejected the Sixth Circuit’s reasoning, stating that the statute made no reference to a 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 the plaintiff’s injuries is irrelevant [to the operation of Tenn. Code Ann. §20-1-119].”  Although the court of appeals decision remains the controlling authority in Tennessee, the Sixth Circuit continued to adhere to its holding that the statute did not apply in cases involving a tortfeasor known to the plaintiff.

Answer to certified question. The Tennessee Supreme Court, as the final arbitrator of the meaning of Tennessee law, concluded that the published precedent established by the court of appeals was controlling and, therefore, the passenger could utilize Tenn. Code Ann. §20-1-119 to amend his complaint to assert a claim against the driver as a non-party against whom Ford Motor Co. had asserted a comparative fault claim even though the non-party in this case was known to the passenger when his original complaint was filed.

The case number is M2013-02546-SC-R23-CV.

Attorneys: H. Franklin Chancey (Chancey, Kanavos, Love & Painter) for Michael S. Becker. J. Randolph Bibb, Jr. (Lewis Thomason) for Ford Motor Co.

Companies: Ford Motor Co.

MainStory: TopStory DefensesLiabilityNews MotorVehiclesNews TennesseeNews

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