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Guthrie v. Rutherford County

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

December 15, 2016

LINDA K. GUTHRIE
v.
RUTHERFORD COUNTY, TENNESSEE, ET AL.

          Session August 17, 2016

         Appeal from the Circuit Court for Rutherford County No. 63743 Howard W. Wilson, Chancellor

         Plaintiff, a special education assistant, was injured at work when two middle school students were roughhousing in a school hallway and one was pushed into her, causing her to fall. She sued Rutherford County for negligence, pursuant to the Tennessee Governmental Tort Liability Act, alleging that, inter alia, her injuries were caused by the County's failure to properly supervise the students, whom she also sued. After a bench trial, the court rendered judgment in favor of the defendants. Plaintiff appeals the judgment with respect to the County, contending that the court erred in holding that the County was immune from suit, that the evidence preponderated against certain findings of the court, and that the court erred in concluding that the County's agents had not acted negligently. Discerning no error, we affirm the judgment.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Circuit Court Affirmed

          R. Steven Waldron, Murfreesboro, Tennessee; and K. Cody Allison, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellant, Linda K. Guthrie.

          E. Evan Cope, Murfreesboro, Tennessee, for the appellees, Rutherford County, Tennessee, et al.

          Richard H. Dinkins, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which J. Steven Stafford, P.J., W.S., and W. Neal McBrayer, J., joined.

          OPINION

          RICHARD H. DINKINS, JUDGE

         I. Factual and Procedural History

         On November 3, 2010, Linda K. Guthrie ("Plaintiff"), a special education assistant employed at Smyrna Middle School in Rutherford County, was walking in a common area of the school while students were changing classes. As two sixth-grade boys were roughhousing, one boy was pushed into Plaintiff, causing her to fall and fracture her left hip and wrist. She was taken to the emergency room and admitted to the hospital, where she underwent surgery for both injuries; she received approximately three weeks of physical therapy and lost substantial time from work.

         Plaintiff filed suit against Rutherford County on October 20, 2011, pursuant to the Tennessee Governmental Tort Liability Act ("TGTLA"), alleging that the County owed her "a duty of ordinary care to avoid injury to her in the manner in which she was injured" and "violated this duty by the failure of its agents to properly supervise the students . . . and . . . to enforce school rules." She alleged that these "violations constitute the proximate cause of the accident" resulting in her injuries. Plaintiff alleged that the County's immunity from suit was removed pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-20-205 "because Plaintiff's injuries were proximately caused by the negligent actions of individuals who were under the control of the Defendant." She alleged that she "suffered serious personal injuries, physical and mental pain and suffering, lost enjoyment of life, and substantial medical bills were incurred at reasonable cost for necessary medical treatment which have, to date, been paid by Defendant Rutherford County, " as well as "suffered lost wages/income and a loss in her ability to earn income." She amended her complaint on November 2, 2011, to add the students who had been roughhousing and their parents as defendants, seeking damages of $10, 000 from each parent and $350, 000 "individually, jointly and severally" from the County and the two students. Plaintiff amended her complaint a second time, adding allegations that her injuries were the result of the County's breach of its duty of care to furnish her a reasonably safe place to work. Answers were filed on behalf of the County and one of the students.[1] Plaintiff subsequently non-suited her claims against the parents.

         In due course, the County moved for summary judgment, asserting that it was immune from suit in accordance with the discretionary function exception to the TGTLA. The court denied the motion, holding that disputed questions of fact existed "as to whether Defendant violated its policy for having its agents supervise middle school children while they changed classes, and, if [so] . . ., whether that violation constitutes the cause in fact and legal cause of Plaintiff's accident and resulting injuries."

         A non-jury trial was held on August 5, 2015 at which the following witnesses testified on behalf of the Plaintiff: Kevin Wright, Plaintiff's son; Janet McCormick, Plaintiff's daughter; Jason Crutchfield, who had been a teacher and coach at Smyrna Middle School, and at the time of trial, was an assistant principal there; Glenee Jones, formerly an art teacher at the school; Leo Martin, retired assistant principal; Danielle

          Castro, one of the students whose horseplay resulted in the Plaintiff's fall; and the Plaintiff. Kirkland Berry, the other student whose horseplay injured the plaintiff, testified on his own behalf. Eight exhibits were entered into evidence: a diagram of the school drawn by Ms. Jones; a witness statement prepared by Mr. Crutchfield; a supervisor's report signed by Mr. Martin; an employee statement signed by Plaintiff; a listing of medical bills; mortality tables; and photographs of Kirkland Berry and Danielle Castro.

         In a Memorandum and Order entered August 10, 2015, the court rendered judgment in favor of the defendants. The court held that the students were "incapable of acting negligently and could not be held liable for the injuries sustained by the Plaintiff."[2]The court held that the County was immune because the "allegations raised by the Plaintiff . . . involve[] the County's discretionary acts in planning and policy-making concerning school safety." The court rejected Plaintiff's argument that immunity had not been pled and held that "[e]ven if . . . immunity was not properly pled by the County or such a defense was not applicable, it would be the Court's opinion that the County did not act negligently." Plaintiff appeals, stating the following issues:

1. Whether the Trial Court committed reversible error by finding/ruling that Defendant Rutherford County had properly raised in its Answer that immunity had not been waived because Defendant's policy of requiring teachers to stand in their classroom doors and monitor the hallways during class changes was a discretionary policy or act?
2. Whether the Trial Court committed reversible error by finding and ruling that Defendant Rutherford County's policy of requiring teachers to stand in their classroom doors and monitor the school hallways during class changes is a "discretionary" policy for which immunity, pursuant to the Governmental Tort Liability Act (GTLA)[, ] has not been removed?
3. Whether the Trial Court committed reversible error by finding Plaintiff had not proven that Rutherford County agents had violated school policy by failing to have someone in place to monitor children in the hallways during class change in the area where Plaintiff fell?
4. Whether the Trial Court committed reversible error by finding that Plaintiff had not established that one or more agents of Defendant Rutherford County were absent from their assigned posts at the time of Plaintiffs accident?
5. Whether the Trial Court committed reversible error by finding that Rutherford County had not acted negligently with reference to Plaintiff's accident?
6. Whether the Trial Court committed reversible error by finding "that the infusion of more teachers into the hallways of Smyrna Middle School at the time of class change would not have prevented Plaintiff's injury"?
7. Whether the Trial Court committed reversible error by finding Rutherford Count was not guilty of proximate negligence with reference to Plaintiff's accident ...

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