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Voigt v. Plate

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Knoxville

February 28, 2017


          Session November 21, 2016

         Appeal from the Circuit Court for Hamilton County No. 13C374 John B. Bennett, Judge.

         In this personal injury and contract reformation case, the plaintiff filed a complaint, seeking damages resulting from a motor vehicle collision and reformation of a release of all claims signed by the plaintiff. As grounds for reformation, the plaintiff claimed that an agent of the defendant company fraudulently induced the plaintiff to sign the release. The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, asserting that the plaintiff could not establish an essential element of his action because the plaintiff did not act promptly in seeking reformation of the release. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant upon finding, as a matter of law, that the plaintiff's action was not prompt after discovery of the alleged fraud and that the plaintiff therefore was not entitled to reformation of the release. The plaintiff timely appealed. Having determined that the question of whether the plaintiff's actions were sufficiently prompt in seeking the equitable relief of reformation presents a genuine issue of material fact, we reverse the trial court's grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendant.

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

          Danny R. Ellis, Chattanooga, Tennessee, for the appellant, Gary Voigt.

          K. Stephen Powers and Travis B. Holly, Chattanooga, Tennessee, for the appellee, J.B. Hunt Transport, Inc.

          Thomas R. Frierson, II, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Charles D. Susano, Jr., and Richard H. Dinkins, JJ., joined.



         The instant action arises from an automobile accident occurring on March 13, 2012, in Hamilton County. The plaintiff, Gary Walter Voigt, filed his complaint against Michael Plate and J.B. Hunt Transport, Inc. ("J.B. Hunt") on March 7, 2013, seeking damages for the injuries Mr. Voigt sustained in the motor vehicle collision. Mr. Voigt later amended his complaint to request reformation of a release of all claims he signed in connection with an early settlement with J.B. Hunt.

         There appears to be no dispute that Mr. Plate operated a semi-trailer truck in the scope of his employment with J.B. Hunt at the time of the accident. According to Mr. Voigt's complaint, the accident occurred when Mr. Plate's "semi-trailer jackknifed" and "violently slammed into Mr. Voigt's vehicle, " which "caus[ed] [Mr. Voigt] to lose control and slam into the barrier wall." Mr. Voigt was allegedly injured in the collision and was transported to the emergency room at Memorial Hospital by his wife. While at the scene of the collision, Mr. Plate presented Mr. Voigt with a document purportedly releasing J.B. Hunt from all liability for the collision. Mr. Voigt refused to sign the document.

         On the day of the accident, J.B. Hunt hired an investigator, Harry Gilbert Jones, to investigate the collision and Mr. Voigt's claimed damages. Mr. Jones immediately contacted Mr. Voigt on March 13, 2012, and discussed a settlement between J.B. Hunt and Mr. Voigt. During negotiations, Mr. Jones wrote down items discussed concerning the settlement, which included:

Value of Vehicle: $8, 675.00
Lost Wages ($200.00 per day for three days): 600.00
Vehicle Rental: 510.00
Total: $9, 785.00

         Following the discussions, Mr. Jones authorized payment of Mr. Voigt's wrecker service bill of $228.70 on behalf of J.B. Hunt. According to the proposed settlement, Mr. Voigt would be allowed to retain the salvage value of his vehicle. It is undisputed that Mr. Jones did not inquire regarding the amount of Mr. Voigt's medical bills or any necessary follow-up treatment resulting from the injuries sustained in the collision. However, Mr. Jones was aware that Mr. Voigt was injured during the collision and that Mr. Voigt had been to the hospital for treatment of those injuries.

         According to Mr. Voigt's deposition testimony, Mr. Jones rounded the settlement amount to $10, 000.00 to settle the property damage portion of the claim while leaving the personal injury claim open. To reach the $10, 000.00 settlement, Mr. Jones testified that he allocated the remaining $215.00 as payment for "personal injury, " without discussing it with Mr. Voigt, because he "needed to put something down in [his] report to [J.B. Hunt] to get the $10, 000." Mr. Jones further explained that he did not present the negotiation report to Mr. Voigt and did not discuss with Mr. Voigt that the $215.00 would be allocated toward his personal injury claim.

         Ultimately, Mr. Voigt and J.B. Hunt reached an agreement that J.B. Hunt would pay $10, 000.00 to Mr. Voigt. On March 15, 2012, Mr. Voigt and his wife, Ruth Angela Voigt, signed a document captioned, "RELEASE OF ALL CLAIMS, " releasing J.B. Hunt and Mr. Plate

from any and all claims, actions, causes of action, demands, rights, damages, costs, loss of service, expenses and compensation whatsoever, which [Mr. and Ms. Voigt] now has . . . or which may hereafter accrue on account of or in any way growing out of any and all known and unknown, foreseen and unforeseen bodily and personal injuries and property damage and the consequences thereof resulting or to result from the accident, casualty or event which occurred on or about the 13th day of March 2012 . . . .

         According to Mr. Voigt, he understood that he was only signing a release for claims regarding lost wages, property damage, and a rental car, believing that the personal injury portion of his claim would remain open. Mr. Voigt acknowledged reading the release prior to signing it but indicated that he did not understand that the release would preclude his personal injury and medical claims. Mr. Voigt testified that prior to signing the release, Mr. Jones informed him: "Regardless of what we sign, J.B. Hunt is still responsible for your medical expenses." Mr. Voigt further testified that he had relied on Mr. Jones's statements regarding the meaning of the release when he made the decision to sign it. In his deposition, Mr. Jones stated that Mr. Voigt did not at any time explain that he wished not to settle his personal injury or medical claims. Mr. Jones insisted that the settlement included all claims.

         Ms. Voigt executed an affidavit, stating that she was present during the negotiations. She confirmed that an individual employed by J.B. Hunt informed her and her husband that J.B. Hunt would remain liable for Mr. Voigt's medical expenses and that the release was only applicable to Mr. Voigt's property damage claims. Relative to the release, Criswell Claim Services issued a check to Mr. and Ms. Voigt, on behalf of J.B. Hunt, in the amount of $10, 000.00. The check included a notation reflecting: "FULL AND FINAL SETTLEMENT." The Voigts deposited the funds into their account at Chattanooga Federal Employees Credit Union.

         In his deposition, Mr. Voigt further testified that he was contacted by a claims adjuster employed by his automobile insurance carrier, State Farm Insurance Company ("State Farm"), in April 2012, approximately three weeks following the accident. The claims adjuster stated that she was having difficulty contacting Mr. Jones. At her request, Mr. Voigt faxed the adjuster a copy of the signed release. The insurance adjuster then informed Mr. Voigt that State Farm would no longer cover any past or future medical expenses that Mr. Voigt incurred resulting from the collision because the signed release jeopardized State Farm's ability to seek subrogation against J.B. Hunt for such medical expenses. Mr. Voigt related that he spoke to Mr. Jones following his conversation with the adjuster and explained to Mr. Jones how his insurance coverage had been affected by the release. According to Mr. Voigt, during a conference telephone call including Mr. Voigt, the adjuster, and Mr. Jones, Mr. Jones informed both Mr. Voigt and the adjuster that J.B. Hunt was still responsible for Mr. Voigt's medical bills and directed State Farm to send Mr. Voigt's medical bills to him so he could forward them to J.B. Hunt. Mr. Jones did not recall such a telephone conference occurring. Both Mr. Voigt and Mr. Jones testified that State Farm sent Mr. Voigt's medical bills to Mr. Jones and that Mr. Jones forwarded them to J.B. Hunt.

         Mr. Jones provided Mr. Voigt with contact information for a representative at J.B. Hunt to discuss payment of the medical expenses. Mr. Voigt testified that he contacted the J.B. Hunt representative, who informed him that "it was very unusual for somebody to send [J.B. Hunt] medical bills after a settlement is signed" but that J.B. Hunt would consider the medical bills and whether to pay them. According to Mr. Voigt, that was the final conversation he had with a representative of J.B. Hunt. Thereafter, in May 2012, Mr. Voigt obtained legal counsel.

         Mr. Voigt subsequently filed the instant action on March 7, 2013, seeking damages for personal injuries resulting from the motor vehicle collision. Specifically, Mr. Voigt averred that Mr. Plate violated motor vehicle traffic laws, failed to exercise due care, and was liable under theories of common law negligence and negligence per se. Mr. Voigt sought damages in the amount of $250, 000.00. On April 15, 2013, J.B. Hunt filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 12.02(6), asserting that Mr. Voigt had failed to state a claim on which relief could be granted because he was not entitled to recovery due to the previously signed release. On June 7, 2013, Mr. Voigt responded in opposition to the motion to dismiss, alleging that he was fraudulently induced into signing the release and requesting reformation of the release document.

         Upon Mr. Voigt's motion, the trial court subsequently entered an order granting permission to amend the complaint. Filing his amended complaint on June 26, 2013, Mr. Voigt requested reformation of the release on the basis of Mr. Jones's fraudulent misrepresentations, which purportedly induced Mr. Voigt to execute the release. Mr. Voigt requested reformation of the release such that "the terms that only the value of the car, lost wages, and rental fees [would be] released." On July 15, 2013, J.B. Hunt filed an answer to Mr. Voigt's amended complaint, denying the additional allegations. J.B. Hunt contended that Mr. Voigt was not prompt in seeking contract reformation after his discovery of the alleged fraud and that Mr. Voigt failed to tender back to J.B. Hunt the proceeds received in exchange for executing the release.

         On December 19, 2013, J.B Hunt filed a motion for summary judgment, asserting that Mr. Voigt could not prove an essential element of his action because he had failed to seek prompt relief when he received notice of the alleged fraud, thereby precluding him from being granted reformation of the contract. J.B. Hunt also claimed that ...

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