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Tennessee Appeals Court Rules that Dismissal for Failure to Perfect Timely Service of Process in Death Case Was in Error

Most everyone has heard the term “file a lawsuit,” but those outside the legal profession may not fully understand what that process entails. For starters, the plaintiff must prepare a formal, written complaint setting forth the basic factual allegations, legal claims, and relief sought.

In addition to the filing of the complaint with the clerk of the court in the county in which jurisdiction is pled, the plaintiff must also file serve a copy of the complaint on the defendant(s) in the case. Generally speaking, this can be done one of two ways: by local sheriff deputies or by a private process server.

There are procedural rules, applicable in East Tennessee personal injury and other civil cases, including time limitations on both the filing of the complaint and the perfecting of service of process, that must be followed. Failure to follow these rules or meet these deadlines can be very detrimental to the plaintiff’s legal rights.

Facts of the Case

In a recent case considered by the Court of Appeals of Tennessee at Knoxville was the widow of a man who allegedly died due to the negligence of the defendant medical providers. The plaintiff filed her healthcare liability lawsuit against the defendants in the Circuit Court for Knox County in January 2018. Rather than have service of process proceed as usual through the local sheriff’s office, however, the plaintiff’s attorney chose to personally serve the defendants’ registered agent for service of process with copies of the pleadings. This service of process took place 89 days after the plaintiff filed her complaint, and return of the summons was made about seven months after the filing of the complaint.

In June 2018, the defendants filed an answer to the plaintiff’s complaint, denying liability as to the underlying cause of action and asserting as an affirmative defense a denial that they had been properly serviced with process. The plaintiff filed a motion to strike the defendants’ affirmative defense, asserting that it had not been sufficiently pled in light of Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 8.03. Thereafter, the defendants filed a motion to dismiss the plaintiff’s case pursuant to Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure 4.01(3) and 12.02(4)-(5) on the grounds of the plaintiff’s alleged intentional delay of process, insufficient service of process, and insufficient process. The Trial Court denied the plaintiff’s motion to strike the affirmative defense and granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss. The plaintiff appealed.

Decision of the Court

The appellate court affirmed in part and reversed in part. The court agreed that the trial court had acted properly in denying the plaintiff’s motion to strike, but ruled that a reversible error had occurred with regard to the granting of the defendants’ motion to dismiss. In agreeing with the plaintiff that the trial court should not have granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss her complaint due to insufficient service of process, the reviewing court first pointed out that the burden was on the defendants to prove that the plaintiff’s delay in completing service of process was intentional, and the trial court’s judicial notice of matters such as the proximity of the registered agent for service of process to the courthouse or the approximate amount of time it would have taken for service to occur by mail failed to satisfy the defendants’ burden.

The court went on to opine that, because the defendants had not shown an intentional delay in service of process by the plaintiff, the plaintiff was not obligated to present proof that the delay was not intentional. The inferences in favor of the parties being equal, the defendants had not met their burden, and it was thus error for the trial court to grant their motion to dismiss.

Speak to Counsel About Your Injury or Death Case

Knowing, understanding, and following the procedural rules of litigation, especially those involving deadlines and filing requirements, are crucial in a negligence case. If you have lost someone in your family due to another’s careless behavior, or if you have been hurt by an act of negligence or malpractice, the Hartsoe Law Firm is here to help. For an appointment, call us at 865-524-5657. Please do not wait until the last minute to seek legal advice about your case; the investigation of an injury or wrongful death case can be a time-consuming process – and one that should not be rushed, if the plaintiff’s case is ultimately to be successful.

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