Tennessee Court Holds Failure to Return Service of Process Document Did Not Ipso Facto Result in Dismissal of a Car Accident Lawsuit

The plaintiff in a Knoxville car accident case must comply with several important deadlines, if his or her lawsuit against a negligent defendant is to be successful. One of the most important of these deadlines is the statute of limitations – that is, the deadline for filing a claim in a court with appropriate jurisdiction.

However, merely filing a claim is not enough to keep the plaintiff’s case on track for a positive outcome. The plaintiff’s complaint must also be served on the defendant, so that he, she, or it has an opportunity to respond to the plaintiff’s allegations.

Facts of the Case

The plaintiff in a recent appellate court case was a woman whose car was allegedly struck by a vehicle owned by the defendant utility company. The accident happened on March 16, 2009, and the plaintiff’s suit was filed on March 12, 2010. Her suit was in the nature of a civil warrant filed in general sessions court by her then-attorney, who served the complaint on the defendant the next day via certified mail. According to the plaintiff’s then-attorney, he made a return-of-service to the clerk’s office after perfecting service on the defendant. The clerk, however, did not docket the case, and the defendant later claimed that the plaintiff’s then-attorney had failed to make the return-of-service as he alleged.

Eventually, in 2015, the general sessions court entered a defense verdict, from which the plaintiff took a prompt appeal to Circuit Court for Shelby County. In the circuit court, the defendant sought dismissal of the plaintiff’s complaint on the basis that the statute of limitations had run due to the plaintiff’s failure to perfect service of process upon it. The circuit court ruled in the plaintiff’s favor on the defendant’s motion to dismiss.

The Appeals Court’s Decision

The Court of Appeals of Tennessee at Jackson affirmed the circuit court’s decision and remanded the case to the circuit court for further proceedings. Because the matter was heard without a jury in the court below, the court of appeals reviewed the lower court’s ruling de novo with a presumption of correctness as to findings of fact. Noting that the trial court found that the plaintiff’s former attorney was a credible witness and that he testified that he did, in fact, make a return-of-service to the clerk’s office, the court agreed with the lower tribunal that the plaintiff’s failure to return service did not ipso factor constitute a lack of service of process. In so holding, the court observed that neither Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 4.03(1) nor Tennessee Code Annotated ยง 16-15-905 (pertaining to proof of service) explicitly stated that prompt return of service to the court was necessary in order to accomplish service of process upon a defendant.

Contact a Knoxville Car Accident Lawyer

Making a timely claim is critically important in a motor vehicle accident case. If you or a loved one has been hurt due to the negligence of a motorist, truck driver, or other party, you should talk to a lawyer as soon as possible. To schedule a free case evaluation with an experienced Knoxville car accident lawyer, call the Hartsoe Law Firm at 865-524-5657 and set up a time to come into our Maryville or Knoxville offices to discuss your case. If necessary, we can arrange to travel to your home for the appointment.

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