Any regular Tennessee practitioner is familiar with Hannan v. Alltel Publishing Co., 270 S.W.2d 1 (Tenn 2008). In that decision, the Tennessee Supreme Court laid out a very difficult, if not insurmountable standard for defendants to obtain summary judgment, holding “in Tennessee, a moving party…must either (1) affirmatively negate an essential element of the nonmoving party’s claim; or (2) show that the nonmoving party cannot prove an essential element of the claim at trial.” Regardless of the intentions of the Supreme Court in enacting this standard, in practice it made summary judgment nearly impossible. Defendants had to either prove a negative at the summary judgment stage or show that the plaintiff cannot prove an element at trial. The words “at trial” proved particularly troublesome because trial courts almost uniformly denied summary judgment motions filed by defendants on the basis that the plaintiff could still, theoretically, come up with additional evidence before trial, sometimes even if discovery deadlines had run. In response to this decision, the Tennessee legislature enacted Tennessee Code Annotated § 20-16-101, establishing a new summary judgment standard effective for all actions filed on or after July 1, 2011, a statute specifically intended to overturn Hannan.
On Monday, October 26, 2015, the Tennessee Supreme Court reached a long-awaited decision in Rye v. Women’s Care Center of Memphis. You can read the opinion here. The Rye case involves a healthcare liability claim in which a hospital conceded it violated the standard of care, causing a patient to become Rh-sensitive. A summary judgment motion filed by the defendants questioned whether Rh-sensitivity had or would ever cause the plaintiff any compensable damages. Because this case originated in 2009, the statutory summary judgment standard at Tennessee Code Annotated §20-16-101 does not apply.
Rye, therefore, proceeded under the Hannan standard. After the Tennessee Court of Appeals ruled summary judgment was inappropriate because the plaintiffs could still come forward with additional evidence prior to trial, the defendants requested permission to appeal to the Supreme Court of Tennessee. The Supreme Court granted the appeal, and also requested that the parties brief the issue of whether the Hannan standard should be abolished altogether. In an opinion authored by Justice Cornelia A. Clark, a member of the majority in Hannan, the Supreme Court held:
[T]he standard adopted in Hannan is incompatible with the history and text of Tennessee Rule 56 and has functioned in practice to frustrate the purposes for which summary judgment was intended –a rapid and inexpensive means of resolving issues and cases about which there is no genuine issue regarding the material facts.
Reading this, I could feel the collective weight of thousands of defense attorneys’ heads nodding in unison. The Court went on to adopt a standard identical to the federal summary judgment standard, so defendants are no longer required to prove a negative. If you have any pre-2011 cases still lingering, you should take a few minutes to consider whether your case now warrants summary judgment. And if you have had a previous motion for summary judgment denied, you may want to re-file.