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Tennessee Court of Appeals Affirms $200,000 Damages Award to Student Injured by Teacher’s Shot Put Toss During Track and Field Tryouts

Lawsuits against governmental entities for the allegedly negligent acts of their employees can be difficult. As with other defendants accused of negligence, the government resists being held accountable in many East Tennessee personal injury cases.

Generally, the argument is that the employee in question acted reasonably under the circumstances presented and that the plaintiff was the one at fault. However, this is not always the government’s strategy.

A recent case against a large county school system was the “exception that proves the rule,” so to speak. In this case, the governmental entity insisted that its employee’s conduct was so egregious as to not be considered negligence, thus removing the case from the statute under which the injured party pursued compensation.

Facts of the Case

In an appellate court case appealed from the Circuit Court for Shelby County, the plaintiff was the parent and next friend of a minor child who received significant injuries to his skull and brain as a result of an incident in which a teacher (an employee of the defendant school system) threw a shot put and hit him in the head during track and field tryouts at a middle school. The plaintiff’s lawsuit sought to recover monetary damages for the child’s injuries, including pain and suffering, loss of enjoyment of life, mental anguish, and medical expenses exceeding $60,000. At trial, the defendant moved for involuntary dismissal under Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 41.02(2), claiming that the plaintiff’s negligence claim had failed because the proof showed that the teacher’s actions were intentional, reckless, or grossly negligent and that the defendant school system was thus immune from liability under the Tennessee Governmental Tort Liability Act.

The trial court denied the motion, eventually entering an order finding that the teacher was acting within the scope of his employment at the time of the incident and that he had acted negligently in injuring the student. The court also found that the defendant was vicariously liable for the teacher’s negligence under the Act and that the plaintiffs were entitled to $200,000 in compensatory damages. The defendant appealed.

Decision of the Court

The Tennessee Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s ruling. While governmental entities such as the defendant generally enjoy immunity from liability, the case at bar fell squarely within the exception to the rule carved out by the Act. Under the Act, a governmental entity’s immunity is removed for injuries that are proximately caused by the negligent act or omission of an employee acting within the scope of his or her employment. While governmental immunity was not removed for intentional torts such as assault and battery, the court disagreed with the defendant’s argument that the teacher had acted intentionally in injuring the student.

The court so held based on the testimony of the teacher, who took responsibility for the accident but insisted that he did not hurt the child on purpose. Rather, he had made several efforts to avoid harm, such as moving the students back from the area in which he was throwing; ultimately, of course, those efforts had failed, and the child had been hurt. Given the teacher’s lack of experience and training in this particular area, the court found that his efforts were not a gross deviation from the standard of care of a person in his circumstances.

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The Hartsoe Law Firm is here to help with wrongful death and personal injury cases throughout the Knoxville and Maryville area. If you have been hurt by another’s negligence in Knox or Blount County (or in the surrounding area), call us at 865-524-5657 for a free case evaluation.

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