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Haynes v. Wayne County

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

April 19, 2017


          Session Date: March 7, 2017

         Appeal from the Circuit Court for Wayne County No. 4525 Russell Parkes, Judge

         This is an appeal from the trial court's grant of summary judgment to the defendant, Wayne County, in a wrongful death action filed under the Governmental Tort Liability Act. The plaintiff's grandson committed suicide several hours after being released from the defendant's jail. The plaintiff filed this wrongful death action alleging that his death was caused by the defendant's negligence in releasing him from custody in an intoxicated state without a mental health evaluation and without notifying his family of suicidal threats that he made while incarcerated. Having reviewed the record, we conclude that the plaintiff's evidence at the summary judgment stage is insufficient to establish that the defendant breached its duty of care to the decedent or that its conduct was a proximate cause of his death. We therefore affirm the trial court's grant of summary judgment.

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

          Russell Belk and Taylor Sutherland, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellant, Sharyn Haynes.

          Robyn Beale Williams and Ross V. Smith, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellee, Wayne County, Tennessee.

          Arnold B. Goldin, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Frank G. Clement, Jr., P.J., M.S., and Richard H. Dinkins, J., joined.



         I. Background and Procedural History

         The decedent, twenty-year-old Philip Haynes, was arrested for underage consumption, public intoxication, and resisting arrest in the early morning hours of July 17, 2010. Mr. Haynes, his cousin, and another man had stopped to use the restroom at a truck stop in Clifton, Tennessee. All three men had been drinking, but Mr. Haynes was the most intoxicated of the group. Mr. Haynes caught the attention of police officers in the truck stop's parking lot when he stumbled getting out of the car. The officers asked the men to step out of the car and instructed them to sit on a nearby trailer while they investigated. While they were sitting on the trailer, Mr. Haynes became upset.

         According to his cousin, Mr. Haynes started crying and saying "this is it" repeatedly. The cousin, fearful that Mr. Haynes would try to get back into the car and follow through on past threats to commit suicide by running into a semi-trailer truck, tried to calm Mr. Haynes. Despite his efforts, Mr. Haynes attempted to run back to the car. The officers stopped Mr. Haynes before he reached the car and put him in handcuffs. The officers placed Mr. Haynes under arrest and transported him to the Wayne County Jail.

         The officers arrived at the Wayne County Jail with Mr. Haynes at approximately 3:00 a.m. There, they transferred him to the custody of Wayne County Sheriff's Deputies Jonathan Prince and Kevin Clayton. According to Deputy Prince, Mr. Haynes was "really, really intoxicated to the point of passing out" when he arrived at the jail. Mr. Haynes had vomited on himself in the patrol car and was unable to walk into the jail without assistance. After they walked him into the jail, Mr. Haynes asked Deputies Prince and Clayton if their guns were real. When the deputies replied that they were, Mr. Haynes asked the deputies to shoot him. Deputy Clayton reported Mr. Haynes's statement to the booking officer, Correctional Officer Kent Dugger. As part of the booking process, Officer Dugger asked Mr. Haynes a series of standard medical questions and recorded his answers on a medical form. The medical form reflects that Mr. Haynes told Officer Dugger that he was suffering from depression and had attempted to commit suicide "several times" in the past.

         Due to his concern that Mr. Haynes posed a suicide risk, Officer Dugger put Mr. Haynes in a suicide prevention suit and placed him on suicide watch in an isolated cell with cameras. Officer Dugger monitored Mr. Haynes for the remainder of his shift, and Mr. Haynes slept in his cell without incident. At the time, a non-profit health care organization called Centerstone had a mobile crisis response team that would evaluate and provide mental health services to suicidal inmates at the jail free of charge. The jail did not have a contract with Centerstone, but Officer Dugger was aware of its services and had called Centerstone in the past when an inmate attempted to hang himself in his cell. Officer Dugger testified in his deposition that he elected not to call Centerstone to evaluate Mr. Haynes because Mr. Haynes had only made a suicidal threat as opposed to an actual suicide attempt. In any event, Centerstone's policies stated that services to intoxicated individuals would not be offered until the individual was no longer in an intoxicated state. Wayne County Sheriff Rick Wilson also testified in his deposition that Centerstone's mobile crisis response team would not come to the jail to evaluate intoxicated inmates.

         When Officer Dugger's shift ended at 6:00 a.m., he was replaced by Correctional Officer Justin Sanders. Officer Dugger advised Officer Sanders of Mr. Haynes's suicidal threat and that Mr. Haynes was on suicide watch. He also advised Officer Sanders that Mr. Haynes would be eligible for release after Officer Sanders finished making his morning rounds. Officer Sanders testified in his deposition that he offered breakfast to Mr. Haynes around 6:30 a.m., but Mr. Haynes declined it. Between one and two hours later, Mr. Haynes called for Officer Sanders and requested a blanket. Rather than give Mr. Haynes a blanket, Officer Sanders informed Mr. Haynes that he was eligible to be released. Officer Sanders testified that he then asked Mr. Haynes if he remembered making a suicidal threat the night before. According to Officer Sanders, Mr. Haynes replied in a joking manner that he remembered making the statement but was just drunk and did not mean it. Officer Sanders then removed Mr. Haynes from his cell and began filling out paperwork for his release from custody. According to Officer Sanders, the release process took about an hour and Mr. Haynes seemed fine during that time. Officer Sanders testified that Mr. Haynes was joking and laughed about the vomit on his clothes. Officer Sanders testified that he did not feel that there was any need to contact a medical provider before releasing Mr. Haynes because Mr. Haynes was fine.

         Officer Sanders released Mr. Haynes from the Wayne County Jail at approximately 9:30 a.m. Sometime around 10:00 a.m., Mr. Haynes called his cousin who had been with him the night before and asked to be picked up from a McDonald's restaurant. Because he did not have a car, the cousin told Mr. Haynes's grandmother and guardian, Sharyn Haynes, that Mr. Haynes had been arrested and needed to be picked up. Ms. Haynes and the cousin drove to the McDonald's to pick up Mr. Haynes, but he was not there when they arrived. After driving to the jail to look for him there, they eventually found Mr. Haynes walking on the side of the road. Ms. Haynes testified in her deposition that Mr. Haynes appeared to be still intoxicated when they picked him up. She also testified that Mr. Haynes appeared to be angry with himself and that they sat in silence on the ride back to her house. Ms. Haynes drove Mr. Haynes to her house and left him there alone while she took the cousin back to his mother's house. Mr. Haynes fatally shot himself shortly thereafter at approximately 11:49 a.m.

         In July 2011, Ms. Haynes (hereinafter "Plaintiff"), acting as Mr. Haynes's heir and next friend, filed a wrongful death action against Wayne County ("Defendant").[1] Her complaint alleged that Mr. Haynes's death was the result of Defendant's negligence in releasing him from custody in an intoxicated state without having him evaluated by a mental health professional and without notifying his family of the suicidal threats that he made while incarcerated. In its answer, Defendant denied the allegations of negligence and asserted that any negligent conduct on its part was not the proximate cause of Mr. Haynes's death. Following a period of discovery, Defendant filed a properly supported motion for summary judgment in July 2015. Plaintiff opposed the motion in September 2015. In October 2015, the trial court granted Defendant's motion for summary judgment, concluding that Defendant had negated the breach of duty and proximate causation elements of Plaintiff's negligence claim. Thereafter, Ms. Haynes filed a timely notice of appeal to this Court.

         II. Issues

         Ms. Haynes presents the following issue on appeal, as we have restated it:

1. Whether the trial court erred in granting Defendant's motion for summary judgment.
Wayne County presents the following additional issue, as we have restated it:
1. Whether Ms. Haynes has standing to bring this cause of action.

         III. Standard of Review

         This is an appeal from the trial court's grant of a motion for summary judgment. We review a trial court's summary judgment ruling de novo with no presumption of correctness. Abshure v. Methodist Healthcare-Memphis Hosps., 325 S.W.3d 98, 103 (Tenn. 2010). In doing so, we must make a fresh determination as to whether the requirements of Rule 56 of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure have been satisfied. Id.

         Rule 56 provides that summary judgment is appropriate when "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56.04. When the party moving for summary judgment will not have the burden of proof at trial, it may satisfy its initial burden of production either (1) by affirmatively negating an essential element of the nonmoving party's claim or (2) by demonstrating that the nonmoving party's evidence at the summary judgment stage is insufficient to establish the nonmoving party's claim or defense. Rye v. Women's Care Ctr. of Memphis, MPLLC, 477 S.W.3d 235, 264 (Tenn. 2015). If the moving party fails to meet its initial burden of production, then the nonmoving party's burden is not triggered, and the court should dismiss the motion for summary judgment. Town of Crossville Hous. Auth. v. Murphy, 465 S.W.3d 574, 578-79 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2014) (citing Martin v. Norfolk S. Ry. Co., 271 S.W.3d 76, 83 (Tenn. 2008)). If, however, the moving party does make a properly supported motion for summary judgment, then the burden of production shifts to the nonmoving party to demonstrate the existence of a disputed fact requiring trial. Id. at 578 (citing Byrd v. Hall, 847 S.W.2d 208, 215 (Tenn. 1993)).

         To survive a properly supported motion for summary judgment, the nonmoving party "'may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of its pleading, ' but must respond, and by affidavits or one of the other means provided in Tennessee Rule 56, 'set forth specific facts' at the summary judgment stage 'showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'" Rye, 477 S.W.3d at 265 (quoting Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56.06). The nonmoving party must demonstrate the existence of specific facts in the record that could lead a rational trier of fact to find in favor of the nonmoving party. Id. If adequate time for discovery has passed and the nonmoving party's evidence at the summary judgment stage is insufficient to establish the existence of a genuine issue of material fact for trial, then the motion for summary judgment should be granted. Id. As such, even when the determinative issue is ordinarily a question of fact for the jury, summary judgment is appropriate if the uncontroverted facts and inferences to be drawn from those facts make it clear that a reasonable person can reach only one conclusion. White v. Lawrence, 975 S.W.2d 525, 529-30 (Tenn. 1998).

         IV. Discussion

         Defendant contends Plaintiff lacks standing to file a wrongful death action on behalf of Mr. Haynes. Although Plaintiff initiated this appeal from the trial court's grant of summary judgment, we must address the issue of standing first because deciding the case on summary judgment presupposes that Plaintiff had standing to file the action.

         A. Plaintiff's Standing to Initiate a Wrongful Death Action

         Standing is the doctrine by which the courts determine whether a particular litigant is entitled to pursue judicial relief as to a particular issue or cause of action. Am. Civil Liberties Union of Tenn. v. Darnell, 195 S.W.3d 612, 619 (Tenn. 2006). Grounded in concern for the proper-and properly limited-role of the courts in a democratic society, the doctrine of standing precludes courts from adjudicating an action at the instance of one whose rights have not been invaded or infringed. Id. (citing Warth v. Seldin, 422 U.S. 490, 498 (1975); Mayhew v. Wilder, 46 S.W.3d 760, 767 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2001)). Persons whose rights or interests have not been affected have no standing and are, therefore, not entitled to judicial relief. State v. Harrison, 270 S.W.3d 21, 28 (Tenn. 2008). The sort of distinct and palpable injury that will create standing must be an injury to a recognized legal right or interest. Id. Such a legal right or interest may be created or defined by statute. Id. "When a statute creates a cause of action and designates who may bring an action, the issue of standing is interwoven with that of subject matter jurisdiction and becomes a jurisdictional prerequisite." Osborn v. Marr, 127 S.W.3d 737, 740 (Tenn. 2004).

         Wrongful death actions are governed purely by statute in Tennessee. At common law, there was no action that survivors could bring for the wrongful death of a relative. Foster v. Jeffers, 813 S.W.2d 449, 452 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1991). As a result, it was more economically prudent in some cases to kill a person than to merely inflict a nonfatal injury. Id. To negate that moral dilemma, legislatures enacted wrongful death statutes aimed at keeping a decedent's cause of action from dying with the decedent. Id. Tennessee's wrongful death statute provides:

The right of action that a person who dies from injuries received from another, or whose death is caused by the wrongful act, omission, or killing by another, would have had against the wrongdoer, in case death had not ensued, shall not abate or be extinguished by the person's death but shall pass to the person's surviving spouse and, in case there is no surviving spouse, to the person's children or next of kin[.]

Tenn. Code Ann. § 20-5-106(a). Notably, the statute does not create any right of action existing independently of that which the decedent would have had, if he or she had survived. Kline v. Eyrich, 69 S.W.3d 197, 206-07 (Tenn. 2002). Although the living beneficiaries of the action may seek limited recovery for their own losses in addition to those of the decedent, the right of action itself remains one that is single, entire, and indivisible. Id. at 206 (citing Hill v. ...

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