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Tennessee Court of Appeals Explains Payment of Attorney Fees in Negligence Case in Which Breach of Contract is Also Asserted

Most east Tennessee personal injury and negligence cases proceed under a theory known as “negligence.” In order to be successful in such a case, the plaintiff must be able to show that the defendant breached a duty of care that was owed to him or her and that, as a proximate result, he or she suffered damages that are compensable under the law (such as pain and suffering, lost earnings, or medical expenses).

It is important to note, however, that not all negligence cases involve physical harm or death to an individual. Property damage, too, can be an element of damages in a negligence case. For example, there may be a separate claim for property damage in a motor vehicle accident case.

Some negligence cases pertain only claims involving property, however. Sometimes, these negligence claims are brought along with other allegations, such as a breach of contract claim. When this happens, the plaintiff may receive additional damages that would not otherwise be available (attorney fees, for instance, are not typically awarded in simple negligence cases under the so-called “American rule”).

Facts of the Case

In a recent case considered on appeal by the Court of Appeals of Tennessee at Nashville, the plaintiffs entered into an agreement with the defendant homebuilder, by virtue of which the defendant agreed to build a certain house for the plaintiffs and the plaintiffs agreed to pay a certain amount of money to the defendant. The home was built, and the plaintiffs moved into it in mid-2014. Unfortunately, there were numerous alleged problems with the construction of the house, resulting in the plaintiffs filing suit against the defendant, alleging, among other things, negligence in the construction process, breach of contract, and breach of warranty. Importantly, the parties had a written contract memorializing their agreement. This contract provided for attorney fees to the prevailing party in the event of a lawsuit.

After several years of litigation, the trial court granted judgment to the plaintiffs in the amount of $125,343 on their negligence and breach of contract claims. The plaintiffs then filed a motion asking the court to order the defendant to pay their attorney fees and certain discretionary costs associated with the litigation. The trial court granted the motion as to the discretionary costs but declined to grant attorney fees.

How the Court Resolved the Dispute

The court began by analyzing the defendant’s argument that the trial court had erred with regard to its damages award to the plaintiffs on their negligence and breach of contract claims. Concluding that the plaintiffs were entitled to damages based on the defendant’s breach of duty to them and that the amount awarded by the trial court was reasonable, the appellate court affirmed the lower court’s ruling on the issue of damages.

The court went on to reverse the lower court’s denial of the plaintiffs’ request for attorney fees, noting that the parties’ contract provided for attorney fees and other damages to the prevailing party in the event of a suit to enforce the agreement. Although the plaintiffs did not get everything they asked for in the lower court, the appellate tribunal explained that “prevailing parties” are those who succeed on a “significant claim” rather than on every allegation asserted.

To Schedule an Appointment with a Negligence Attorney in East Tennessee

Unfortunately, the awarding of attorney fees is usually limited to negligence cases in which there is a companion claim that provides for the payment of fees (such as the breach of contract claim here). Because we understand that it can be difficult for an injured person to pay attorney fees upfront, we structure our fee agreement in personal injury and wrongful death cases in a manner in which we only get paid if the case is ultimately successful. To learn more about our services in east Tennessee negligence cases, contact the Hartsoe Law Firm at 865-524-5657.

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