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Negligence Case Brought by East Tennessee Ash Spill Cleanup Workers Proceeds Toward Trial on General Causation

In an east Tennessee personal injury lawsuit based on a plaintiff’s allegations that a defendant acted negligently, there are four essential elements: duty, breach of duty, damages, and causation. “Causation” is a but-for cause-and-effect relationship between what the defendant did or did not do and what ultimately happened to the plaintiff.

Unless the plaintiff can prove all four of these elements, including causation, by a preponderance of the evidence at trial, his or her case will not be successful, even if his or her injuries were severe and even if the defendant admits that a legal duty towards the plaintiff was breached.

Facts of the Case

A recent case under consideration by the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee arose as a result of a cleanup, removal, and recovery project at a 2008 ash spill at a Roane County fossil fuel plant. There were several plaintiffs, including both individuals who worked on the project and some who had spouses who did so. The plaintiffs’ claims including negligence, negligence per se, recklessness, fraud, misrepresentation, and/or strict liability for an ultrahazardous or abnormally dangerous activity. According to the plaintiffs’ the defendant’s failings as construction manager of the project caused pulmonary problems, skin and sinus illnesses, and other personal serious injuries.

The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment on the issue of general causation. It also sought judgment on the pleadings on the plaintiff’s strict liability claims based on their allegations of ultrahazardous or abnormally dangerous activity.

The Appellate Court’s Decision

The federal district court denied the construction manager’s motion for summary judgment on the issue of general causation but granted the relief sought on the issue of strict liability. According to the court, summary judgment was not appropriate because there was evidence in the record presented to the trial court judge by the parties upon which a reasonable jury could find in the plaintiff’s favor on the issue of general causation. This was because the plaintiffs had shown that they were exposed to a large amount of coal and fly ash yet were not allowed to wear protection from these potentially dangerous substances.

In so holding, the court noted that the defendant acknowledged that there was expert testimony to the effect that diseases about which the plaintiffs had complained could be caused by toxic constituents contained in these substances. The defendant’s counterarguments concerning the biological plausibility and bioavailability were ruled “unavailing” by the court. With regard to the strict liability portion of the plaintiffs’ lawsuit, the court agreed with the defendant that fly-ash cleanup and removal was not an “inherently ultrahazardous or abnormally dangerous activity” under Tennessee law.

After ruling upon the defendant’s motions, the court directed that the matter would proceed to the first phase of the bifurcated trial plan previously entered by the court.

Free Legal Consultation Available

If you or a loved one has been hurt due to the negligence of another individual, a business, or a governmental agency, the Hartsoe Law Firm, P.C., is here to advise you concerning the viability of a potential personal injury or wrongful death lawsuit against the responsible party. Call us at 865-524-5657 to schedule a consultation in our Knoxville or Maryville offices.

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