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Bates v. Greene

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Jackson

July 27, 2017

LARRYSTINE BATES
v.
MICHAEL J. GREENE, ET AL.

          Session June 29, 2017

         Direct Appeal from the Circuit Court for Shelby County No. CT-003250-14 Felicia Corbin Johnson, Judge

         This appeal involves the appropriate statute of limitations applicable to a claim against an insurance company for uninsured motorist coverage. The plaintiff-driver filed this lawsuit against the defendant-driver but was unable to serve him with the civil warrant despite repeated attempts. Over a year after the lawsuit was filed, the plaintiff had an additional alias civil warrant issued adding her insurer as the uninsured motorist carrier, and she served the amended civil warrant on the insurer. The insurer moved for summary judgment based on the statute of limitations. The trial court concluded that the plaintiff's claim against the insurer in accordance with her uninsured motorist coverage arose out of the alleged negligence of the uninsured motorist, and therefore, it was governed by the one-year statute of limitations applicable to personal injury claims. Accordingly, the trial court granted summary judgment to the insurer based on the expiration of the one-year statute of limitations. Finding the one-year statute of limitations inapplicable, we reverse and remand for further proceedings.

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

          Cornelius Bostick, Memphis, Tennessee, for the appellant, Larrystine Bates.

          Samantha Erin Bennett, Memphis, Tennessee, for the appellee, Shelter Insurance Company.

          Brandon O. Gibson, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which J. Steven Stafford, P.J., W.S., and Kenny Armstrong, J., joined.

          OPINION

          BRANDON O. GIBSON, JUDGE

         I. Facts & Procedural History

         The motor vehicle accident giving rise to this litigation occurred on May 5, 2011. Within one year of the accident, on April 24, 2012, Plaintiff Larrystine Bates filed a civil warrant in general sessions court against Defendant Michael Greene, seeking to recover for losses allegedly caused by Defendant Greene's negligent driving. The civil warrant was returned unserved. On January 25, 2013, an alias civil warrant was issued for Defendant Greene, but it was also returned unserved. An affidavit from the process server indicates that he was not to be found. On July 22, 2013, an amended alias civil warrant was issued for Defendant Greene with Shelter Insurance Company, Plaintiff's uninsured motorist carrier, added as a defendant. Shelter Insurance Company ("Shelter") was served on July 31, 2013, two years after the accident occurred.

         Shelter filed a motion for summary judgment, asserting that the claim against it was barred by the one-year statute of limitations applicable to personal injury actions. The general sessions court denied the motion and entered judgment in favor of Plaintiff for $9, 000. Shelter appealed to circuit court, where it renewed its motion for summary judgment based on the one-year statute of limitations. In response, Plaintiff argued that she was asserting a contract claim against Shelter, subject to a six-year statute of limitations, rather than a tort claim subject to the one-year statute of limitations. Plaintiff noted that she timely filed her lawsuit against Defendant Greene and then pursued a claim against Shelter when it became apparent that she could not obtain service on Defendant Greene.

         After a hearing, the trial court entered an order granting Shelter's motion for summary judgment. The court reasoned that "this cause of action is a personal injury action arising from an automobile accident and is, therefore, governed by the one-year statute of limitations set forth in Tennessee Code Annotated section 28-3-104(a)." The court rejected Plaintiff's argument that she was asserting a contract claim against Shelter and instead concluded that Plaintiff's claim "sounds in tort."

         Plaintiff filed a motion to alter or amend, which the trial court denied, again reasoning that Plaintiff was "seeking to hold Shelter liable for the alleged tortious acts of the uninsured motorist, " and therefore, her claim against Shelter "arises out of the alleged negligence of the uninsured motorist." Plaintiff timely filed a notice of appeal to this Court.

          II. Issues Presented

         The issue raised by Plaintiff on appeal is whether her claim against Shelter was governed by the one-year statute of limitations for personal injury actions or the six-year statute of limitations for contract actions. For the following reasons, we conclude that the one-year statute of limitations is inapplicable, and we reverse and remand for further proceedings.

         III. Standard of Review

         Determining the applicable statute of limitations is an issue of law that we review de novo. Gunter v. Lab. Corp. of Am., 121 S.W.3d 636, 638 (Tenn. 2003).

         IV. Discussion

         Uninsured motorist coverage "compensates for damages caused by owners or operators of motor vehicles who either lack insurance coverage or carry coverage insufficient to pay for the damages occasioned by their negligent operation of a motor ...


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