Federal Court Sides with Tennessee Family in Wrongful Death Case

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit handed down a decision this month that clarified the meaning behind Tennessee’s definition of unsound mind for the purposes of tolling the one-year statute of limitations for personal injury and wrongful death cases.

The case, Johnson v. Memphis Light, Gas & Water Div., No. 14-5484 (6th Cir. 2015), dealt with an individual, J. Dean Johnson (herein referred to collectively with relatives who brought the suit as “plaintiff”), who was unsuccessful in turning on the utilities in his home, and as a result died of a heat stroke when the temperature in his apartment reached 93.2 degrees.

The plaintiff attempted to secure utility services from Memphis Light, Gas & Water (MLGW), but he was unsuccessful because he lacked a state-issued photo identification card. He lacked a birth certificate, was illiterate, and had extensive intellectual disabilities, requiring him to rely on other people to help him with many tasks, including transportation to and from his work.

The plaintiff was 65 years old and had lived with no electricity, heat, or air conditioning in his home for some 18 months until he died. His survivors filed suit, claiming that his death was caused by the MLGW’s denial of services. They brought claims under relevant federal laws, under the Governmental Tort Liability Act (GTLA), and under Tennessee’s wrongful death statute.

The defendant MLGW filed a motion for summary judgment, claiming that the plaintiff’s claims were barred by the relevant statute of limitations. The district court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, finding that the relevant statute of limitations had expired and that there was insufficient evidence to support a tolling of that statute of limitations.

The record showed that the man’s relative had accompanied him on his trip to the local MLGW office in an attempt to set up his utility account. Once they were there, however, the employee for the company would not accept any of the identification that the man had. He tried to explain that he didn’t drive, so he did not have a driver’s license, and that since he could not procure a birth certificate, he did not have a state issued ID. He further attempted, with the assistance of the relative, to substitute his employer-issued ID, which had a picture on it, but the employee would not accept it. Thus, he left the office frustrated and without utilities connected.

In this case, the relevant statute of limitations is one year, and according to federal law, that accrues from when “the plaintiff knows or has reason to know of the injury which is the basis of his action.’”

Furthermore, the relevant Tennessee law that addresses tolling the statute of limitations allows for tolling if the person injured was adjudicated as incompetent or shown to be of unsound mind. Under the relevant statute, a person is considered to be of unsound mind if that person “was unable to manage his or her day-to-day affairs at the time the cause of action accrued.” The relevant standard for determining that was developed in a case that created a test of “whether a person could know or understand his or her legal rights sufficiently well to manage his or her personal affairs….”

The plaintiff’s family members and a co-worker testified regarding his mental limitations, inability to complete simple math, or manage his affairs. The utility company challenged this testimony as insufficient evidence. The court found that the modern trend among courts was to allow for the admission of opinion testimony when it appears to be well-founded, is based upon personal knowledge, and is subject to cross-examination, which was the case here.

Therefore, the court of appeals found that the plaintiffs had presented sufficient evidence of the man’s mental disability, which created a genuine issue of material fact as to whether he was of unsound mind when his action accrued, and therefore as to whether the statute of limitations was tolled. The court therefore reversed and remanded the case for trial.

After suffering an injury, you may be forced to deal with time away from your job, lost wages, emotional trauma, and pain and suffering. You should never negotiate with an insurance company after such an accident without first consulting an experienced attorney. MHPS has a dedicated team of trial lawyers who have recovered millions of dollars for their clients in a variety of personal injury and wrongful death cases. If you or a loved one needs assistance in a personal injury or wrongful death matter, call us at (615) 800-7096, or contact us through this website.

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