Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Beard v. Branson

Supreme Court of Tennessee, Nashville

August 30, 2017

LINDA BEARD
v.
JAMES WILLIAM BRANSON, ET AL.

          Session February 8, 2017

         Appeal by Permission from the Court of Appeals Circuit Court for Houston County No. 1368 Robert E. Burch, Judge.

         We granted permission for this appeal to determine whether a surviving spouse who files a wrongful death lawsuit is acting as a legal representative of the decedent and whether a wrongful death lawsuit filed pro se by the surviving spouse is void ab initio based on the spouse's pro se status. In this case, the decedent's surviving spouse filed a pro se wrongful death health care liability lawsuit shortly before the one-year statute of limitations lapsed. After expiration of the limitations period, the spouse retained an attorney and filed an amended complaint. In the ensuing discovery, the defendants learned that the decedent had two daughters, both of whom were statutory beneficiaries in the wrongful death action. The defendants filed motions for summary judgment. They argued that the spouse's initial pro se complaint was filed in a representative capacity on behalf of the decedent and the other statutory beneficiaries and that it was, therefore, void ab initio; thus, the filing of the amended complaint could not relate back to the date of the initial complaint, and the lawsuit was time-barred. The trial court denied the summary judgment motions and permitted the amended complaint to relate back to the date of the initial pro se complaint. It then conducted a jury trial; the jury found both defendants liable and awarded damages. The defendant hospital appealed the denial of summary judgment. Adopting the defendant's argument, the Court of Appeals reversed. The plaintiff now appeals. Under the plain language of Tennessee's wrongful death statutes, the decedent's right of action "pass[es] to" the surviving spouse upon the decedent's death, and the surviving spouse asserts the right of action for the benefit of himself and other beneficiaries. Tenn. Code Ann. § 20-5-106(a) (2009 & Supp. 2016). Consequently, we hold that the surviving spouse did not file the initial pro se complaint as the legal representative of either the decedent or the decedent's estate. As we construe our wrongful death statutes, in filing the pro se complaint, the surviving spouse was acting to a large extent on his own behalf and for his own benefit pursuant to his right of self-representation. Under the facts of this case, we hold that the initial pro se complaint was not void ab initio, it served to toll the statute of limitations, and the trial court did not err in allowing the filing of the amended complaint to relate back to the date of the initial complaint. Accordingly, we reverse the decision of the Court of Appeals, affirm the trial court's denial of summary judgment, and remand to the Court of Appeals for consideration of the other issues that were properly raised on appeal but not addressed.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 11 Appeal by Permission; Judgment of the Court of Appeals Reversed; Case Remanded to the Court of Appeals.

          Philip N. Elbert, James G. Thomas, and Jeffrey A. Zager, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellant, Linda Beard.

          David L. Johnson, Nashville, and James T. McColgan, III, and Sherry Fernandez, Cordova, Tennessee, for the appellee, Trinity Hospital, LLC.

          Holly Kirby, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Jeffrey S. Bivins, C.J., and Cornelia A. Clark, Sharon G. Lee, and Roger A. Page, JJ., joined.

          OPINION

          HOLLY KIRBY, JUSTICE.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         On September 13, 2004, Ruth Hartley ("the decedent") was admitted to Defendant/Appellee Trinity Hospital ("Trinity") in Erin, Houston County, Tennessee, for elective colon surgery. The surgery was performed by Defendant James William Branson, M.D. ("Dr. Branson").

         After the surgery, the decedent developed medical complications. On September 28, 2004, after the decedent had endured several days of vomiting, diarrhea, and piercing abdominal pain, she was transferred by helicopter to Centennial Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, for emergency surgery. By the time she arrived, she was already in septic shock. The next day, during the surgery, the decedent went into cardiac arrest and died.

         On September 12, 2005, with the statute of limitations looming, the decedent's surviving spouse, Denver Hartley, filed a pro se wrongful death health care liability lawsuit against Trinity and Dr. Branson (collectively, "defendants"). See Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-26-101, et seq. (Tennessee Health Care Liability Act). The pro se complaint listed Mr. Hartley as the plaintiff, "Individually and as the Surviving Spouse of Ruth Hartley, Deceased." Mr. Hartley signed it "as the Surviving Spouse of Ruth Hartley." Although the complaint was actually prepared by an attorney who was informally assisting Mr. Hartley, it was signed only by Mr. Hartley and was not signed by an attorney.[1]

         In the complaint, Mr. Hartley alleged inter alia that Trinity and Dr. Branson negligently failed to diagnose and treat the decedent's condition and that their breach of the standard of care caused his wife's death. The complaint included a request for damages on behalf of Mr. Hartley only; it did not mention any other surviving heirs of the decedent. It sought damages for the decedent's pain and suffering, the economic value of the decedent's life, Mr. Hartley's loss of consortium, funeral expenses, and other damages resulting from the defendants' negligence. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 20-5-113 (2009).

         In November 2005, the defendants filed separate motions to dismiss Mr. Hartley's complaint pursuant to Rule 12.02 of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure.[2] Both motions asserted that Mr. Hartley was not permitted to file this lawsuit pro se. Mr. Hartley's complaint, they claimed, was filed in a representative capacity on behalf of the decedent and, as a non-attorney, Mr. Hartley could not file a lawsuit for another in a representative capacity. The defendants contended that the filing of the complaint constituted the unauthorized practice of law by Mr. Hartley. As such, they argued, the pro se complaint was a nullity and therefore the trial court did not have subject matter jurisdiction over the case.

         After both motions to dismiss were filed but before they were argued, Mr. Hartley formally retained an attorney, Philip N. Elbert, to represent him in this lawsuit. On February 15, 2006, Mr. Elbert filed a notice of appearance as legal counsel for Mr. Hartley.[3]

         On February 27, 2006, Mr. Hartley, through counsel, filed a response opposing the defendants' motions to dismiss. The response explained that Mr. Hartley contacted Mr. Elbert shortly before the one-year anniversary of his wife's death, but Mr. Elbert was unable to fully investigate the claim consistent with his ethical obligation before expiration of the limitations period. Consequently, Mr. Elbert assisted Mr. Hartley with the preparation and filing of his pro se complaint in order to prevent the cause of action from becoming time-barred while Mr. Elbert did his investigation of the claims. As to the motions to dismiss, Mr. Hartley argued in his response that they should be denied because, under Tennessee's wrongful death statutes, the decedent's cause of action passed to Mr. Hartley when she died. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 20-5-106(a) (2009 & Supp. 2016). Because the cause of action belonged to Mr. Hartley, the filing of the pro se complaint did not constitute the unauthorized practice of law. Mr. Hartley's response further maintained that, even if the appearance of counsel was deemed necessary, the formal notice of the appearance of Mr. Elbert as counsel cured any error and should relate back to the date of the initial complaint.

         On March 2, 2006, Mr. Hartley filed an amended complaint signed by Mr. Elbert as Mr. Hartley's attorney of record. He also filed a second memorandum in opposition to Dr. Branson's motion to dismiss.

         Soon thereafter, the trial court held a hearing on the defendants' motions to dismiss.[4] On July 3, 2006, the trial court entered an order denying both defendants' motions. In the order, the trial court held that Mr. Hartley was permitted to file the wrongful death action pro se because, under section 20-5-106, the decedent's cause of action passed to Mr. Hartley as the surviving spouse, and the decedent had no other statutory beneficiaries. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 20-5-106(a). The trial court reasoned that, "[w]hen there are statutory beneficiaries, the surviving spouse will be proceeding in a representative capacity on behalf of himself and any statutory beneficiaries, " but because Mr. Hartley was the only beneficiary, he was representing his own interests and not proceeding in a representative capacity. Therefore, it held, Mr. Hartley was permitted to represent himself in the wrongful death action, and his initial complaint was not a nullity. Discovery ensued.

         In the course of discovery, it was revealed that the decedent and Mr. Hartley had two adult daughters, Linda Beard and Tammy Veach. This new information prompted the defendants to file motions for summary judgment. The defendants asserted that, because Mr. Hartley was not the decedent's sole statutory beneficiary, he was asserting a wrongful death claim in a representative capacity on behalf of the other statutory beneficiaries.[5] As Mr. Hartley is not an attorney, the defendants argued, he was not permitted to represent the other beneficiaries. They again claimed that the initial complaint was a nullity and its filing did not toll the statute of limitations.

         While the summary judgment motions were pending, Mr. Hartley, through counsel, filed a motion to amend the complaint "[o]ut of an abundance of caution" to add himself as a party plaintiff in a representative capacity on behalf of the decedent's children, should they elect to claim an interest in the lawsuit in the future. Both of the defendants responded by arguing that the motion to amend should not be granted because the original complaint was a nullity, so there was nothing to amend.

         In November 2006, the trial court held a hearing on the motions for summary judgment.[6] In March 2007, the trial court entered an order denying the defendants' motions. It held that the initial pro se complaint was "partially proper" because, in addition to pursuing the claims of the other statutory beneficiaries, Mr. Hartley was pursuing his own claim under the wrongful death statutes:

If a plaintiff is acting in a purely representative capacity, the filing of a complaint is a nullity. . . . In the case sub judice the plaintiff is pursuing his own claim and that of the children of the deceased. If he were pursuing his own claim, he would unquestionably have the right to proceed pro se. If he were pursuing only the claim of the children, he would not. Since the action necessarily contains both types of claims, it presents in the same action a claim which the court will entertain and one which it will not.
The action, as filed, was partially proper. . . . In a wrongful death action, there is but one cause of action embracing the first and second classes of damages contemplated by T.C.A. § 20-5-113 . . . . The complaint stated a cause of action which the courts will recognize. One of the elements of damages in the cause of action contained in the complaint was improper. This may [be] cured by a proper amendment. The filing of the complaint therefore presented a claim which is sufficient to toll the statute of limitations.

(Citations omitted). The trial court commented that it viewed this situation as similar to one in which a wrongful death claim is filed by an improper party. See generally Chapman v. King, 572 S.W.2d 925 (Tenn. 1978). In such a case, it noted, a court should liberally permit the addition or substitution of the proper party plaintiff pursuant to Rules 15.03 and 17.01 of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure, even beyond the expiration of the statute of limitations. Accordingly, the trial court held that, even though Mr. Hartley's pro se pursuit of claims on behalf of other beneficiaries was improper, this defect could be "cured by proper amendment."[7] Therefore, the court held that the amended complaint would relate back to the filing date of the original pro se complaint. On that basis, it denied the defendants' motions for summary judgment.

         In December 2008, Mr. Hartley passed away. A suggestion of death was filed, and the daughter of Mr. Hartley and the decedent, Appellant Linda Beard, was substituted as plaintiff pursuant to Rule 25.01 of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure by agreed order. The other daughter of the decedent and Mr. Hartley, Tammy Veach, was not added as a plaintiff.

         The trial court conducted a jury trial in this case, on May 28 through June 13, 2014.[8] The jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff Ms. Beard and awarded total damages of $750, 000: $500, 000 for the physical pain and mental suffering of the decedent, $200, 000 for Mr. Hartley's loss of consortium, and $50, 000 for the children's loss of consortium. Liability was assessed 50% against Dr. Branson, 40% against Trinity, and 10% against non-party radiologist Stanley Anderson, M.D. Trinity was deemed vicariously liable for the conduct of Dr. Anderson because he was an agent of the hospital.[9]

         The trial court entered a final judgment on the verdict, in which it awarded Ms. Beard damages against Dr. Branson in the amount of $300, 000 and damages against Trinity in the amount of $450, 000. The trial court also awarded Ms. Beard discretionary costs in the amount of $68, 945.85. Trinity filed a motion for a directed verdict or, alternatively, for a new trial, which the trial court denied. Trinity appealed, but Dr. Branson did not.

         The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court's decision. It held that the trial court erred in declining to grant summary judgment in favor of Trinity based on the expiration of the statute of limitations. Beard v. Branson, No. M2014-01770-COA-R3-CV, 2016 WL 1292904, at *8 (Tenn. Ct. App. Mar. 31, 2016), perm. app. granted (Tenn. Sept. 22, 2016). The Court of Appeals reasoned that Mr. Hartley "never had 'his own individual claim' to assert in this case" because Mr. Hartley and the other survivors "were only permitted to assert the cause of action in a representative capacity on behalf of the decedent." Id. at *6 (quoting Ki v. State, 78 S.W.3d 876, 880 (Tenn. 2002)). Because "litigants may not appear in a representative capacity on behalf of others without an attorney, " the intermediate appellate court held, the filing of the initial pro se complaint on behalf of the decedent constituted the unauthorized practice of law. Id. On this basis, it held that Mr. Hartley's initial complaint was a nullity and must be "treated as if it never existed." Id. at *8. By the time a proper complaint was filed by counsel of record, the appellate court stated, the statute of limitations on the wrongful death claim had expired. Id. at *7. It held that the amended complaint did not relate back to the date of the initial pro se complaint under Rule 15.03 of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure[10] because the initial complaint was a nullity and therefore did not operate to toll the statute of limitations.[11] Id. at *7-8. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court's decision with respect to Trinity and remanded for the trial court to dismiss all claims against that defendant. Id. at *8.

         On April 26, 2016, the Court of Appeals issued a separate decision denying Ms. Beard's petition to rehear. In doing so, the Court of Appeals reaffirmed its holding that the initial pro se complaint filed by Mr. Hartley was void, not voidable, and consequently it did not toll the statute of limitations. Beard v. Branson, No. M2014-01770-COA-R3-CV, 2015 WL 1705290, at *1-2 (Tenn. Ct. App. Apr. 26, 2016) ("[W]e respectfully disagree with the notion that a void complaint, one that is a nullity, can be remedied."), perm. app. granted (Tenn. Sept. 22, 2016).

         This Court granted Ms. Beard's application for permission to appeal.

         Standard of Review

         In this appeal, the plaintiff asks us to review the Court of Appeals' decision to reverse the trial court's denial of Trinity's motion for summary judgment.[12] We review a lower court's decision on a summary judgment motion de novo with no presumption of correctness. Tatham v. Bridgestone Ams. Holding, Inc., 473 S.W.3d 734, 748 (Tenn. 2015) (citing Parker v. Holiday Hospitality Franchising, Inc., 446 S.W.3d 341, 346 (Tenn. 2014)). Summary judgment is proper where "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. Our standard of review requires "a fresh determination of whether the requirements of Rule 56 of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure have been satisfied." Rye v. Women's Care Ctr. of Memphis, MPLLC, 477 S.W.3d 235, 250 (Tenn. 2015), cert. denied, 136 S.Ct. 2452 (2016).

         In this case, the legal questions presented require us to interpret statutes. "Statutory interpretation, of course, presents a question of law and our review is de novo with no presumption of correctness." Kiser v. Wolfe, 353 S.W.3d 741, 745 (Tenn. 2011) (citing Carter ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.