Tennessee follows a principle of negligence known as “comparative fault.” Initially established by case law back in the 1990s, this doctrine holds that, in a Tennessee personal injury case in which a plaintiff seeks money damages for injuries allegedly caused by another’s negligence, the finder of fact is to make a finding as to the relative fault of the various parties to the lawsuit.
In other words, the plaintiff’s fault is to be “compared” to that of the defendant. If the defendant is not found to be more at fault than the plaintiff, then the plaintiff’s case fails. (Tennessee is a “modified” comparative negligence state; in some states, the outcome of a case involving two equally negligent parties could differ.)
This idea seems simple enough, at least when there are only one plaintiff and one defendant. However, there are many cases in which this is not so; when there are multiple defendants, for instance, the jury must determine not only the relative fault between the plaintiff and the defendants but also compare the fault of the defendants among them so that, if the plaintiff prevails in the suit, the amount due him or her from each defendant can be determined.
Facts of the Case
In a recent malpractice case appealed from the Circuit Court of Benton County, the plaintiff sought to recover reasonable monetary compensation after she was allegedly hurt by an act of professional malpractice. According to the plaintiff’s original complaint, her injuries occurred after the defendant pharmacy dispensed the wrong medication. However, the pharmacy answered the plaintiff’s complaint by averring that the plaintiff’s treating physician had also breached his duty of care to the plaintiff and that non-party comparative fault should be assessed against him. Thereafter, the plaintiff amended her complaint to include a claim against the physician.
Ultimately, the trial court granted summary judgment to the physician, and he sought sanctions against the pharmacy on the grounds that the pharmacy’s certificate of good faith was supported by an incompetent expert witness. The trial court denied relief to the physician.
What the Reviewing Court Decided
The Court of Appeals of Tennessee at Jackson affirmed the lower court’s ruling. Although the pharmacy did not rely on the same expert’s opinion at the summary judgment stage of the litigation as with regard to the certificate of good faith, the appellate court disagreed with the physician’s assertion that this was an admission as to the witness’s inability to opine on the applicable standard of care. The court also pointed out that a party had a right to act in good faith prior to filing suit, even without all of the proof that would eventually be necessary to prove that party’s case at trial. The court then noted that it was the trial court, not the parties themselves (nor their attorneys), that ultimately decided the competence of expert witnesses.
The plaintiff settled her case with the pharmacy prior to trial and did not oppose the granting of summary judgment to the physician.
Do You Need to Get an Attorney’s Advice in an Injury or Death Case?
Medical malpractice cases are hard. Doctors and other healthcare professionals fight any finding of fault on their part, not just because of the financial consequences of a verdict (in truth, that money is usually paid out by insurance companies, not by the doctors or hospitals themselves) but because of the possible negative effect on a professional reputation. For those seeking to assert their legal rights regarding compensation, it pays to have skilled representation and to have it as early as possible in the litigation process. The Hartsoe Law Firm would be glad to answer your medical malpractice claim questions. Just call us at 865-524-5657 to schedule a free consultation (or use the contact form on this website, if you prefer.)