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Coffey v. Hamblen County

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Knoxville

December 28, 2016

BILLY COFFEY, ET AL.
v.
HAMBLEN COUNTY, ET AL.

          Session October 19, 2016

         Appeal from the Circuit Court for Hamblen County No. 15CV139 Douglas T. Jenkins, Chancellor[1]

         This is a breach of contract action in which the plaintiffs filed suit on behalf of the decedent, who died as a result of suicide in the county jail. The plaintiffs sought damages from the designated emergency medical services provider pursuant to a contract between the provider and the county. The provider filed a motion to stay and compel arbitration pursuant to the terms of the contract. The plaintiffs argued that the arbitration provision in the contract was invalid because it did not contain the required notice advising the parties of the waiver of trial by jury and appeal. The trial court agreed and denied the motion. We reverse and remand for arbitration.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Circuit Court Reversed; Case Remanded

          Russell W. Adkins and Robert L. Arrington, Kingsport, Tennessee, for the appellant, Morristown Emergency & Rescue Squad, Inc. d/b/a Morristown-Hamblen Emergency Medical Services.

          Jeffrey R. Thompson and Gina C. Sarli, Knoxville, Tennessee, for the appellee, Hamblen County.

          Troy L. Bowlin, II, Morristown, Tennessee, for the appellees, Billy Coffey, Melissa Coffey, and Melinda Wolfe.

          John W. McClarty, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Andy D. Bennett, J., joined.

          OPINION

          JOHN W. McCLARTY, JUDGE.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On July 1, 2015, Thomas Coffey ("Decedent") was arrested and transported to the Hamblen County Jail. Decedent, who was under the influence of alcohol and "other drugs" at the time of his arrest, was placed in the general population in a regular housing unit with other inmates. Jail personnel later discovered Decedent unconscious and hanging in his cell as a result of an apparent suicide attempt on July 4, 2015. Jail personnel called the Morristown Emergency Rescue Squad, Inc. d/b/a Morristown-Hamblen Emergency Medical Services ("EMS") for service and transport of Decedent to the hospital. When no ambulance arrived, jail personnel called EMS a second time. EMS advised them that transport was unavailable at the moment because EMS was "out on other calls." Deputy sheriffs then transported Decedent by patrol car to the Morristown Hamblen Hospital. Decedent succumbed to his injuries on July 11, 2015.

         A number of Decedent's relatives, Billy Coffey, Melissa Coffey, and Melinda Wolfe (collectively "Plaintiffs"), filed suit against numerous persons and entities, including Hamblen County, Tennessee ("the County") and EMS.[2] At issue in this appeal is Plaintiffs' allegation that EMS breached its service agreement with the County by failing to timely respond after receiving notification that Decedent attempted suicide by hanging.

         EMS moved to stay the proceeding and to compel arbitration, arguing that Plaintiffs were bound by an arbitration provision in the service agreement because they filed suit as third-party beneficiaries to the contract between EMS and the County. The provision at issue provides as follows:

ARBITRATION. Any dispute or controversy arising under, out of or in connection with, or in relation to this Agreement, or any amendment hereof, or the breach hereof shall be determined and settled by arbitration in Hamblen County, Tennessee, in accordance with the American Health Lawyers Association Alternative Dispute Resolution Services Rules of Procedures for Arbitration and applying the laws of the State. Any award rendered by the arbitrator shall be final and binding upon each of the parties, and judgment thereon may be entered in any court having jurisdiction thereof. The costs shall be borne equally by both parties. During the pendency of any such arbitration and until final judgment thereon has been entered, this Agreement shall remain in full force and effect unless otherwise terminated as provided hereunder. The provision of this Paragraph shall survive expiration or other termination of this Agreement regardless of cause of such termination.

         Plaintiffs and Hamblen County opposed the motion to stay, arguing that the claims set forth in the complaint fall under the category of a "Consumer Case" as defined by the American Health Lawyers Association Alternative Dispute Resolution Services Rules of Procedure for Arbitration ("AHLA"). They claim that in consumer cases, the AHLA requires the use of a separate document conspicuously identified as ...


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