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Eldridge v. Savage

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

November 29, 2017

ALISA LEIGH ELDRIDGE
v.
LEE SAVAGE

          Session June 7, 2017

         Appeal from the Circuit Court for Overton County No. 2010-CV-49 Jonathan L. Young, Judge

         This dispute arises from Buyer's purchase of a home from Seller in 1994. After discovering extensive pre-existing fire damage to the home in 2010, Buyer filed a complaint against Seller, alleging misrepresentation, mistake, and violation of the Tennessee Consumer Protection Act. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Seller, finding that Buyer's cause of action was barred by the applicable statute of limitations. Buyer appeals, alleging that Seller's fraudulent misrepresentations and concealment and the discovery rule tolls the statutes of limitations. She also contends these are factual issues to be determined by a jury. We have concluded that a reasonable jury could not legitimately resolve the facts relied upon by Buyer in her favor; therefore, the trial court acted appropriately by summarily dismissing all of her claims as time barred. Accordingly, we affirm.

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

          Michael Robert Giaimo, Cookeville, Tennessee, for the appellant, Alisa Leigh Eldridge.

          Craig P. Fickling, Cookeville, Tennessee, for the appellee, Lee Savage.

          Frank G. Clement Jr., P.J., M.S., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Andy D. Bennett and W. Neal McBrayer, JJ., joined.

          OPINION

          FRANK G. CLEMENT JR., P.J., M.S.

         Alisa Leigh Eldridge ("Mrs. Eldridge")[1] purchased the home at issue from Lee Savage ("Mr. Savage") on November 1, 1994. Almost sixteen years later, in August 2010, Mrs. Eldridge filed a complaint against Mr. Savage, alleging fraudulent misrepresentation, mistake, and violation of the Tennessee Consumer Protection Act ("TCPA"). The crux of her complaint was that Mr. Savage made false statements of fact regarding the nature and extent of the fire damage to the home and the subsequent repairs he made. Mrs. Eldridge alleged that she relied upon Mr. Savage's express statements that he had repaired the fire damage, and she claimed that she had acted as a reasonably prudent person in her inspection and purchase of the home. Mrs. Eldridge sought compensatory damages, or in the alternative, to rescind the original contract based on a mutual misunderstanding or mistake regarding the nature and extent of the fire damage.

         At the time of the purchase, Mr. Savage informed Mrs. Eldridge and her then-fiancé, now husband, that the home had previously been damaged by fire. Based on this disclosure, and prior to Mrs. Eldridge purchasing the home, the Eldridges personally inspected the home at which time they observed "visible damage from the fire, " noting that the home's kitchen cabinets were "caramel color due to being heat scorched, " and observed that the home had at least one "burnt floor joist in the basement." As part of the pre-closing financing process through the Federal Housing Administration ("FHA"), a professional home inspection was also performed. The inspector's report indicated, inter alia, that "no environmental hazards were noted or reported." Thereafter, Mrs. Eldridge decided to purchase the home, relying on the results of the inspections of the home and Mr. Savage's representations that he had repaired the fire damage and that the home was "livable."

         In the nearly sixteen years that followed, the Eldridges had two children. Their oldest child developed chronic respiratory problems that progressively worsened. In January 2010, when the child was about nine years old, specialists at Vanderbilt University Medical Center advised the Eldridges that environmental conditions in the home could be causing or contributing to their daughter's condition and recommended they scrub the house with bleach. In February 2010, while Mrs. Eldridge was scrubbing the kitchen cabinets with bleach, she noticed "black soot" appearing on the surface of the cabinets. The more she scrubbed, the more soot appeared, and a terrible odor resulted. This prompted the Eldridges to inspect the rest of the house. They discovered "extensive fire damage" behind the refrigerator, behind the cabinets, in the walls, and charred flooring was also discovered beneath the linoleum that Mr. Savage installed. The Eldridges also discovered that the HVAC return was filled with soot.

         Shortly after this action was commenced, Mr. Savage filed a motion to dismiss the complaint on the basis that all claims were barred by various statutes of limitations. In response, Mrs. Eldridge argued that action was timely given the fraudulent misrepresentations of Mr. Savage and that the discovery rule tolled running of the statutes of limitations. Following a hearing on the motion to dismiss, the trial court dismissed the complaint. With respect to the timeliness of the claims asserted by Mrs. Eldridge, the trial court found that the facts as acknowledged by Mrs. Eldridge in the complaint were sufficient to put a reasonable person on notice that she may have a cause of action; therefore, the discovery rule did not toll the statutes of limitations.

         Mrs. Eldridge timely appealed the dismissal of her complaint to this court, and in an opinion filed on December 28, 2012, we reversed and remanded for further proceedings. In reaching our decision, we stated:

The statute of limitations begins to run "when the plaintiff has actual knowledge of a claim" or of "facts sufficient to put a reasonable person on notice that he [or she] has suffered an injury as a result of wrongful conduct." Redwing, 363 S.W.3d at 459 (emphasis added). True, Plaintiff knew at the time of purchase that a fire had occurred at the home. However, she is not suing Defendant for that reason alone. The basis of this lawsuit is that Defendant made false statements regarding "the nature and extent of the fire damage and subsequent repairs to the home." At this stage of the proceedings, there is nothing to indicate that a reasonable person would have discovered the allegedly concealed fire damage, which was "behind the cabinets, in the walls and just underneath the linoleum floor, " prior to when it was discovered by Plaintiff. Therefore, it was premature for the trial court to dismiss Mrs. Eldridge's complaint for failing to exercise reasonable diligence in discovering her injury.

Eldridge v. Savage, No. M2012-00973-COA-R3-CV, 2012 WL 6757941, at *6 (Tenn. Ct. App. Dec. 28, 2012).

         Following remand, neither party submitted any discovery requests or took any depositions. In October 2015, more than two years after the case was remanded, Mr. Savage filed a motion for summary judgment, again asserting that the action was time barred. Mr. Savage argued that the statutes of limitations began to run on November 1, 1994, the date Mrs. Eldridge purchased the home, because she had actual knowledge that the home had been damaged by fire. Mr. Savage further argued that the discovery rule did not toll the statute of limitations because Mrs. Eldridge could have discovered the existence of the allegedly concealed fire damage by exercising reasonable care and diligence.

         After a hearing, the trial court granted the motion for summary judgment. In making its decision, the trial court found that Mrs. Eldridge knew the home had been damaged by a fire, she and her fiancé inspected the home, and it was additionally inspected by a professional as required by the FHA. The court also found it significant that Mrs. Eldridge and her family of four had lived in the home for close to sixteen years before filing suit. Additionally, the trial court held that Mrs. Eldridge's claim of not knowing the extent of the fire damage did not toll the statute of limitations, relying in part on the following admissions made by Mrs. Eldridge:

a. The Defendant notified the Plaintiff of the fire damage prior ...

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