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Daniels v. Huffaker

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Knoxville

May 12, 2015

DANA A. DANIELS
v.
NATALIE HUFFAKER[1] ET AL.

Session Date January 15, 2015

Appeal from the Circuit Court for Knox County No. 1-299-11 Dale C. Workman, Judge

William A. Hotz and Jeffrey H. Glaspie, Knoxville, Tennessee, for the appellant, Dana A. Daniels.

Beverly D. Nelms, Knoxville, Tennessee, for the appellee, Keith Norris.

Thomas R. Frierson, II, delivered the opinion of the court, in which Charles D. Susano, Jr., C.J., and D. Michael Swiney, J., joined.

OPINION

THOMAS R. FRIERSON, II, JUDGE

I. Factual and Procedural Background

The automobile accident giving rise to this action occurred on June 29, 2010. The facts surrounding the accident itself are undisputed. The plaintiff, Dana A. Daniels, was driving her 1999 Buick Century eastbound on Dutch Valley Road in Knoxville at approximately 4:00 p.m. As she approached an apartment complex on her right, a 2000 Ford F-150 pick-up truck ("the truck") traveling in the opposite direction turned left toward the apartment complex and struck Ms. Daniels's vehicle. The truck was driven by the co-defendant, Natalie Huffaker. There were no passengers in either vehicle. As a result of the accident, Ms. Daniels required ongoing medical treatment for injuries to her neck and back. In addition, it is undisputed that Ms. Daniels's vehicle suffered severe damage, which she later described through deposition testimony as a total loss of the vehicle's value.

According to deposition testimony, Ms. Huffaker was not seriously injured in the accident, and the truck she was operating was eventually repaired. The truck was owned by the co-defendant, Keith Norris, who is Ms. Huffaker's brother-in-law, the husband of her sister, Beth Norris. At the time of the accident, Mr. Norris was deployed on active duty in Iraq. His domicile was a home he and his wife owned in the Knoxville area. Ms. Huffaker was twenty-eight years old at the time of the accident. It is undisputed that at some point prior to June 2010, Ms. Huffaker resided with her boyfriend at his apartment on Dutch Valley Drive. Deposition testimony differed, however, regarding whether at the time of the accident and while Mr. Norris was in Iraq, Ms. Huffaker resided with her boyfriend or with her sister, Ms. Norris. Ms. Norris testified that Ms. Huffaker resided with her boyfriend and that she only stayed at the Norrises' home as a visitor or to "decompress" when she encountered relationship difficulties. Ms. Huffaker, however, testified that at the time of the accident, she had been "officially living" at the Norrises' home after losing her job and apartment a few months before. Ms. Huffaker did acknowledge that she kept her mailing address at her boyfriend's apartment and tended to split her time between that apartment and her sister's home.

Ms. Norris testified that she allowed Ms. Huffaker to drive her husband's truck while Mr. Norris was in Iraq because the truck was "just sitting there" and Ms. Huffaker needed transportation to and from work. When the accident occurred, Ms. Huffaker was en route from her employment at a nearby gas station/convenience store to her boyfriend's apartment. She was attempting to turn into the apartment complex's driveway when she collided with Ms. Daniels.

Mr. Norris testified that he never gave express permission to Ms. Huffaker to drive his truck. He concedes, however, that Ms. Huffaker was a "permissive user" of the truck. It is undisputed that Ms. Huffaker was driving with a suspended driver's license and that she maintained no automobile insurance of her own. Both Mr. and Ms. Norris testified, respectively, that they had no knowledge of the status of Ms. Huffaker's driver's license prior to the accident.

On June 24, 2011, Ms. Daniels filed a complaint, alleging negligent operation of the truck on the part of Ms. Huffaker. Specific allegations included reckless driving and failure to properly control the truck, keep a proper lookout ahead, exercise due care, and yield. As to Mr. Norris, Ms. Daniels alleged negligent entrustment and vicarious liability for Ms. Daniels's injuries under the family purpose doctrine and "all statutory and common law presumptions of agency arising from the operation of motor vehicles." She requested $150, 000 in compensatory damages and $45, 000 in punitive damages. Mr. Norris filed an answer to the complaint on July 27, 2011, admitting that Ms. Huffaker was a permissive user of his vehicle at the time of the accident but denying all personal liability for Ms. Daniels's injuries. Upon a joint motion subsequently filed by Ms. Daniels and Mr. Norris, the trial court entered an agreed order striking Ms. Daniels's request for punitive damages on January 11, 2012.

Mr. Norris filed a motion for summary judgment on July 2, 2013, to which he attached excerpts from deposition testimony given by Mr. Norris, Ms. Norris, and Ms. Daniels. Mr. Norris subsequently filed a memorandum in support of his motion on August 26, 2013. Ms. Daniels filed a response in opposition to the motion for summary judgment on September 12, 2013.

In the meantime, Ms. Daniels was not successful in her attempts to timely serve Ms. Huffaker with process. On August 12, 2013, Ms. Huffaker's counsel filed a "Limited and Special Notice of Appearance, " averring that Ms. Daniels had failed to properly serve Ms. Huffaker and that the applicable statute of limitations had expired. Ms. Huffaker subsequently filed a motion to dismiss on October 23, 2013. The trial court granted the motion, dismissing the action as to Ms. Huffaker with prejudice in an agreed order entered on December 19, 2013. Ms. Huffaker eventually provided testimony via deposition in January 2014. Mr. Norris cited Ms. Huffaker's deposition testimony, attaching an excerpt, in a reply he filed to Ms. Daniels's response to the summary judgment motion on February 6, 2014. Ms. Daniels filed a supplemental response the next day, maintaining her argument that Mr. Norris remained liable for the accident under the family purpose doctrine and negligent entrustment.

Following a hearing conducted on February 14, 2014, the trial court entered an order granting summary judgment in favor of Mr. Norris on April 4, 2014. On May 2, 2014, Ms. Daniels filed a notice of appeal and concomitantly filed a Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 59.04 motion to alter or amend the judgment. Following a hearing conducted on May 23, 2014, the trial court denied Ms. Daniels's motion to alter or amend the judgment. This Court thereafter treated Ms. Daniels's appeal as timely pursuant to Tennessee Rule of Appellate Procedure 4(d).

II. Issues Presented

Ms. Daniels presents three issues on appeal, which we have restated as follows:

1. Whether the trial court erred by finding that the prima facie evidence of agency provided by Tennessee Code Annotated § 55-10-311(a) was not applicable to the instant action.
2. Whether the trial court erred by granting summary judgment in favor of Mr. Norris upon its finding that the family purpose doctrine was not applicable to the instant action.
3. Whether the trial court erred by granting summary judgment in favor of Mr. Norris upon its finding that the theory of negligent entrustment was not applicable to the instant action.

III. Standard of Review

Our Supreme Court has succinctly described the applicable[2] standard of review of a trial court's grant of summary judgment:

A summary judgment is appropriate only when the moving party can demonstrate that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56.04; Hannan v. Alltel Publ'g Co., 270 S.W.3d 1, 5 (Tenn. 2008). When ruling on a summary judgment motion, the trial court must accept the nonmoving party's evidence as true and resolve any doubts concerning the existence of a genuine issue of material fact in favor of the nonmoving party. Shipley v. Williams, 350 S.W.3d 527, 536 (Tenn. 2011) (quoting Martin v. Norfolk S. Ry., 271 S.W.3d 76, 84 (Tenn. 2008)). "A grant of summary judgment is appropriate only when the facts and the reasonable inferences from those facts would permit a reasonable person to reach only one conclusion." Giggers v. Memphis Hous. Auth., 277 S.W.3d 359, 364 (Tenn. 2009) (citing Staples v. CBL & Assocs., Inc., 15 S.W.3d 83, 89 ...

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