Brief Fact Summary. The Court of Appeals of Tennessee upheld a lower court decision granting Appellee psychiatrist’s motion for a new trial after a jury returned a verdict in favor of the injured nurse and her spouse in their suit for injuries sustained when a mentally ill patient attacked her. The nurse and her spouse sought review.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. A plaintiff whose negligence is less than that of a defendant may recover damages in an amount reduced in proportion to the percentage of the plaintiff’s own negligence.
Issue. Should the psychiatrist’s negligence have been compared with the intentional conduct of the non-party patient in determining the extent of Defendant’s liability?
Held. No. Reversed and remanded. The Court held that the lower courts erred in ruling that the psychiatrist’s negligence should have been compared with the intentional conduct of the non-party patient in allocating fault, but such error was harmless, as the jury had assessed 100% fault to Defendant. The court remanded for entry of judgment.
Discussion. While the outcome in this case is relatively straightforward, i.e., although the lower courts court incorrectly compared the psychiatrist’s negligence and the intentional act of the patient, the error was harmless as the jury attributed 100% fault for the former and awarded damages accordingly, exploration of the issue is instructive.
The court first addressed the analytical framework for negligence claims in connection with third-party tortious conduct. “Although courts have generally held that a person has a duty to use reasonable care to refrain from conduct that will foreseeably cause injury to others, this duty does not extend to the protection of others from the dangerous conduct of third persons unless the defendant stands in some special relationship to either the person who is the source of the danger, or to the person who is foreseeably at risk from the danger.” Thus the court concluded the jury correctly assigned liability to the Defendant psychiatrist and the lower courts erred in overruling that determination.
The court examined next the approach other jurisdictions have employed in analyzing comparative fault, and noted the concerns of each: 1) In cases that compare the negligence of a defendant with the intentional act of a third party, the concern is not unfairly burdening a negligent tortfeasor in excess of their fault; 2) In cases that do not compare, the concern is to not penalize a plaintiff by permitting a negligent tortfeasor to escape or reduce liability. As is often the case in negligence actions, the crux of the matter is foreseeability. As the Turner court stated: “The conduct of a negligent defendant should not be compared with the intentional conduct of another in determining comparative fault where the intentional conduct is the foreseeable risk created by the negligent tortfeasor.”
The court also saw in the case an opportunity to clarify a fine point of law with regard to apportionment of fault: “There is a distinction between comparative negligence and comparative fault. The former is the measure of the plaintiff’s negligence in percentage terms used for the purpose of reducing the plaintiff’s recovery from the defendant. The latter is defined as those principles which encompass the determination of how to apportion damage recovery among multiple or joint tortfeasors according to the percentage of fault attributed to those actors after reduction for the plaintiff’s percentage of negligence.”