Civil Cases – Opinions Released in Calendar Year 2023

Penny Lawson, et al. v. Hawkins County, TN, et al. (GTLA claim – Public Duty Doctrine; Special Duty Exception)

Style: Penny Lawson, et al. v. Hawkins County, TN, et al.

TSC Docket Number: E2020-01529-SC-R11-CV

Date of TSC Opinion:  February 16, 2023

Opinion of the TSC:   Click here.

TSC Summary of the Opinion:  Governmental entities generally are immune from suit. But the Governmental Tort Liability Act removes immunity for certain injuries caused by the negligent acts of an employee. In this case, we consider whether the term “negligent” in the Act’s removal provision is limited to ordinary negligence or instead also encompasses gross negligence or recklessness. We hold that the Act removes immunity only for ordinary negligence. Because the Court of Appeals held to the contrary, we reverse the decision below and remand for further proceedings.

Concurring Opinion:   Click here.

Link to Court of Appeals Opinion:

Summary by the Court of Appeals:

This appeal arises from litigation concerning a fatal road accident. Steven W. Lawson (“Decedent”), by and through his wife, Penny Lawson, and on behalf of Corey Lawson, Decedent’s child (“Plaintiffs,” collectively), sued the Hawkins County Emergency Communications District Board (“ECD-911”), Hawkins County, Tennessee and Hawkins County Emergency Management Agency (“the EMA”) (“Defendants,” collectively) in the Circuit Court for Hawkins County (“the Trial Court”) alleging negligence, gross negligence, and recklessness in Defendants’ response to a road washout that led to Decedent’s death. Plaintiffs specifically alleged nepotism in Defendants’ hiring practices and a failure to train. Defendants filed motions for judgment on the pleadings, which the Trial Court granted partly on grounds that claims of recklessness could not proceed against the Defendant entities under the Governmental Tort Liability Act (“the GTLA”). Plaintiffs appeal. We hold that Plaintiffs could, in fact, proceed with their claims of recklessness and gross negligence under the GTLA, and the facts pled by Plaintiffs were sufficient to state claims based upon recklessness and gross negligence. We hold further that, based on the facts alleged at this stage, the third special duty exception to the public duty doctrine applies so as to remove Defendants’ immunity. We reverse the judgment of the Trial Court.

Permission to Appeal Granted: November 17, 2021

Appellants’ Briefs Filed: December 15, 2021

Appellees’ Briefs Filed: January 13, 2022

Appellants’ Reply Brief Filed: January 27, 2022

Appellees’ Reply Brief Filed:

Amicus Briefs Permitted:  None

Oral Argument Date:  May 25, 2022

Link to Oral Argument Video:  


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