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The Importance of a Jury Trial

The Tennessee Court of Appeals recently reversed a summary judgment granted to the defendant in a wrongful death case arising from a car crash, ruling that the defendant’s self-serving testimony was insufficient to overcome the statutory presumption that the defendant’s vehicle was being operated by the defendant’s employee in the course and scope of his employment at the time of the collision. Gray v. Baird, No. M2019-01056-COA-R3-CV (May 19, 2020).

The crash in question occurred when the defendant’s employee (and son) was using the defendant’s vehicle to pick up a check from one of the defendant’s clients. The defendant argued that his son had finished with his work at the time, and he therefore was not responsible for the actions of his son causing the wreck.

The Court of Appeals noted that “Tennessee Code Annotated sections 55-10-311 and 55-10-312 create a strong presumption that a business vehicle is being operated within the course and scope of employment and for the registered owner’s use and benefit.” Gray, slip op. at 6. To overcome this presumption, the defendant offered the testimony of his wife and son. Citing Supreme Court precedent, the Court of Appeals held that “summary judgment is not appropriate when the countervailing evidence consisted solely of the defendants’ testimony because ‘their status as interested witnesses places their credibility in question.’” Gray, slip op. at 6.

The decision by the Court of Appeals is another reminder that summary judgment is not appropriate when the facts are disputed. Under Rule 56 of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure, “[s]ummary judgment should be granted when “the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Gray, slip op. at 4, citing Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56.04. In ruling on summary judgment, courts are required to “consider the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and draw all reasonable inferences in that party’s favor.” Gray, slip op. at 4.

Essentially, the Gray decision reaffirms the importance of jury trials to resolve factual disputes, and when reasonable minds could differ in determining the facts, the decision should be made by a jury.

To read this decision, use this link: http://www.tncourts.gov/sites/default/files/gray.shawn_.opn_.docx_.pdf

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