Overview of Tennessee Negligence Laws

What is negligence?

Learn about negligence and how it’s established in the Volunteer State

Most personal injury cases are based on negligence. But what is negligence and how is it established? What about gross negligence and negligence per se?
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To recover damages after an accident, the accident must have been caused by someone else’s intentional actions or carelessness.

The legal term for an accident caused by someone’s carelessness is “negligence,” and the vast majority of personal injury cases in Tennessee are negligence cases.

In this article, we’ll look at negligence laws in the Volunteer State.

What is negligence?

Negligence is the failure to exercise the appropriate level of care. To put it another way, a negligent act is an act that involves an unreasonable risk of causing harm.

Common examples of negligence include:

  • A driver who runs a red light
  • A driver who texts while driving
  • A store owner who fails to clean up a spilled drink in a timely manner
  • A doctor who operates on the wrong part of a patient’s body

Establishing the elements of negligence in Tennessee

Negligence is a legal theory. All legal theories are made up of elements. Each element must be proven in order to establish the legal theory and recover damages.

The 3 elements of negligence are:

  1. Duty. The plaintiff (the injured party) must prove that the defendant (the allegedly at-fault party) owed them a duty of care. A duty of care arises when the law recognizes a relationship between the plaintiff and defendant requiring the defendant to exercise a certain standard of care to avoid harming the plaintiff.
  2. Breach. The plaintiff must prove that their injury was caused by the defendant’s breach of the standard of care.
  3. Causation. The plaintiff must prove that their injury was caused by the defendant’s breach of the standard of care.

Let’s take a closer look at each of these 3 elements.

1. The duty element of negligence

In general, people owe a duty to adhere to a standard of reasonable care while performing acts that could foreseeably harm others. For example, drivers owe all others on the road the duty to exercise reasonable care to avoid harming them.

In some cases, the standard of care owed is more specific. For example, premises liability laws in Tennessee  dictate that property owners owe certain specific duties (such as searching for dangerous conditions) depending on the classification of the person injured.

In other cases, the standard of care owed is higher than the standard of reasonable care. For example, common carriers (those who transport people or property for money) have a duty to exercise the “highest degree of care” as opposed to a “reasonable degree of care.”

Real Life Example: Maud Schindler was late catching a bus outside of Harvey’s Store in Nashville, Tennessee. When she spotted the bus waiting at a stoplight down the road, she ran to the bus and asked the driver to open the door.

The driver opened the door and the door struck Maud and knocked her down. Maud suffered serious injuries as a result and sued the bus driver.

Whether or not the bus driver failed to exercise a “reasonable degree of care” when he opened the door without first asking Maud to step away from the bus might have been a difficult question for the jury to answer. However, because the bus driver was a common carrier (and therefore held to the “highest degree of care”), the jury concluded that the bus driver was negligent.

Other examples of different types of individuals and their respective duties of care include:

Drivers Owe a duty to exercise “reasonable care” to avoid harming others on the road
Store owners Owe a duty to exercise “reasonable care” in the maintenance of a business premises, including the duty to eliminate or warn customers about dangerous conditions on the premises
Healthcare professionals Owe a duty to exercise “the degree of care and skill expected of a reasonable healthcare provider in the same profession”
Product manufacturers Owe a duty to sell products that are free from defects
Bus drivers and other common carriers (pilots, taxi drivers, etc.) Owe a duty to exercise the highest degree of care to secure the safety of passengers

2. The breach element of negligence

Once you determine the standard of care that the defendant owed the plaintiff, the court must decide whether the defendant breached the standard of care.

There is no simple formula for determining whether a defendant breached the applicable standard of care. Often, the determination is based on whether the defendant should have foreseen the harm.

In other words:

Would an ordinary person in the defendant’s position have anticipated the harm that ultimately resulted?

In the case of professionals (especially those in highly-technical fields, such as doctors and pilots), experts are typically brought in to testify as to the industry norms and whether the professional’s conduct fell within those norms.

3. The causation element of negligence

Just because someone acted carelessly, doesn’t mean they were negligent. In order to be negligent, the defendant’s carelessness must have caused the plaintiff’s injury.

Consider the following example:

James is driving his car down I-40 in Memphis when he loses control on the slick pavement and crashes into a tree.

Hank, driving home from a softball game, sees the accident and pulls over to help.

When the police arrive they administer first aid to James. The police also realize that Hank is clearly intoxicated and they arrest him for driving under the influence.

James later sues Hank for his injuries.

In this example, Hank clearly breached his duty to exercise reasonable care by driving while intoxicated. However, Hank’s breach didn’t cause or contribute to James’ accident and therefore Hank would not be found negligent for James’ injuries.

What is gross negligence?

In Tennessee, punitive damages are available if the defendant acted with “gross negligence.”

So what is gross negligence and how does it differ from ordinary negligence?

A person acts with gross negligence if they act with a “reckless disregard for the safety of others.”

To put it another way, a person who acts with gross negligence creates such a significant risk of serious bodily injury or death that their actions must be considered something more than careless.

Let’s look at 2 examples to illustrate the difference between ordinary negligence and gross negligence:

Example 1:

Brian fires his gun into the sky while standing on the sidewalk. As he’s firing the gun, he slips and accidentally shoots and injures a bystander. 

The act of shooting a gun into the sky on a sidewalk is careless, but probably not reckless.

Example 2:

Brian fires his gun into a crowd gathered on the street.

Firing a gun into a crowd is more than just careless, it creates such a significant risk of serious bodily injury or death that it’s considered grossly negligent.

What is negligence per se?

Remember, negligence requires a plaintiff to prove that the defendant owed them a duty and that the defendant breached the duty.

Under the doctrine of negligence per se, the defendant’s law-breaking act serves to establish the first 2 elements of negligence automatically.

In other words, if negligence per se applies, the plaintiff doesn’t need to prove that they were owed a duty or that the defendant breached the duty.

So when does negligence per se apply in Tennessee?

Negligence per se applies in situations where the defendant breaks a law that:

  • Was enacted for the protection and safety of the public, and
  • Expresses the rules of conduct in specific and concrete terms.

Comparative fault in Tennessee

Tennessee follows a “modified comparative fault rule,” which reduces the amount of damages a plaintiff can recover by their degree of fault. What’s more, if the plaintiff is determined to be 50% or more at fault, the plaintiff is barred from recovery ANY damages.

Let’s look at an example:

Tammy is late to watch a show at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee.

After an employee scans her ticket, she immediately starts running down the hall to reach the door that leads to her seat despite the clearly-posted “no running” signs. Tammy trips and falls on a broom that was left on the floor by a janitor who works for the venue.

Tammy suffers a serious hip injury and sues the Ryman Auditorium for $100,000.

The jury finds that the Ryman Auditorium was 70% at fault for the accident (for leaving the broom on the floor). The jury also finds that Tammy was 30% at fault for the accident (for running down the hall).

Under Tennessee’s modified comparative fault rule, Tammy is only able to recover $70,000 (70% of her damages).

Do you think someone’s negligence or gross negligence caused your injury? Reach out to an experienced Tennessee personal injury attorney today.


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