Hopper v. Obion Cnty. Sch. Sys., W2021-00805-COA-R9-CV

CourtCourt of Appeals of Tennessee
Writing for the CourtCARMA DENNIS MCGEE, JUDGE
PartiesJOSHUA CLINT HOPPER v. OBION COUNTY SCHOOL SYSTEM
Decision Date13 June 2022
Docket NumberW2021-00805-COA-R9-CV

JOSHUA CLINT HOPPER
v.

OBION COUNTY SCHOOL SYSTEM

No. W2021-00805-COA-R9-CV

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Jackson

June 13, 2022


Session March 30, 2022

Appeal from the Circuit Court for Obion County No. CC-16-CV-26 Clayburn Peeples, Judge

This is an interlocutory appeal from a personal injury case involving a minor who was struck in the eye by a mechanical pencil while attending an afterschool program. The trial court denied the school system's motion for summary judgment. The trial court granted the school system permission to seek an interlocutory appeal. Thereafter, the school system filed its application for permission to appeal, which we granted. We reverse the decision of the trial court and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Tenn. R. App. P. 9 Interlocutory Appeal; Judgment of the Circuit Court Reversed

Christopher C. Hayden, Jackson, Tennessee, for the appellant, Obion County Board of Education.

W. Lewis Jenkins, Jr. and Dean P. Dedmon, Dyersburg, Tennessee, for the appellee, Joshua Clint Hopper.

Carma Dennis McGee, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which J. Steven Stafford, P.J., W.S., and Arnold B. Goldin, J., joined.

OPINION

CARMA DENNIS MCGEE, JUDGE

I. Facts &Procedural History

Joshua Clint Hopper ("Clint"), a minor at the time of the unfortunate incident in this case, [1] attended Hillcrest Elementary School, which was in the Obion County School System. Clint participated in an afterschool program called the Extended School Program which provided both childcare and homework assistance. On November 19, 2007, nine-

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year-old Clint was struck in the eye by a mechanical pencil while attending the program.[2]A nine-year-old classmate, Jordan, was apparently flicking a pencil back and forth between her fingers when it flew into the air and hit Clint in the eye. Clint did not know if Jordan was just flicking the pencil back and forth or if she meant to throw it at him. Jordan stated that she did not intentionally throw the pencil. Rather, she had been flicking the pencil out of habit and it got away from her. She explained that it was an inadvertent move she did when she was concentrating on her homework. Therefore, Jordan believed that nothing could have been done to prevent it from happening.

At the time the incident occurred, the teacher was in the back of the classroom at his desk, which was located in a small room described as a "closet." The teacher did not observe the incident from his desk nor was he aware that the incident had occurred. According to Clint, the view of the classroom was obstructed by the walls of the closet and the position of the desk in the closet. He would later testify as follows:

Q: What's it obstructed by
A: Because the closet is not in the center of the classroom and plus, you're back in the closet so you've got walls and whatever items are in the closet, plus the way the computer and the desk was is facing more toward the wall. It [isn't] . . . in the middle of the closet facing out It's facing toward the wall
Now, I'm not saying which way he was turned . . . . I'm not trying to say that. I'm just saying physically in the classroom, there wasn't any supervision.
Q: Okay. Where you were sitting that day, do you know if he could see that from the closet?
A: Not for sure. I don't know for a fact.

Although other students in the classroom observed the incident, they were unaware that Clint was seriously hurt. Jordan explained that she knew the pencil had hit Clint in the face, but she was unaware that it had specifically struck his eye. She also explained that Clint said, "Oww," and then they continued what they were doing before the incident. According to Clint, he went to the bathroom to check his eye, which continued hurting and watering, and he returned to the classroom to tell the teacher that he was going to the front office. However, the teacher did not recall Clint coming to him and stating that he needed

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to go to the front office. Regardless, the teacher was unaware of the incident at the time because Clint did not tell him what had happened. As such, he was "shocked" to learn the following day that Clint had been injured. On his way to the front office, Clint passed another teacher in the hallway and asked her if his eye looked red. The teacher stated that his eye looked a little red, asked if he was okay, and then Clint continued to the front office. Upon arriving at the front office, Clint called his mother and was taken to the eye doctor. The incident resulted in multiple surgeries, home schooling, and ultimately the removal of his right eye. Before the removal of his eye, Clint dealt with constant problems with the eye and described the pain as "unbearable."

After reaching the age of majority, Joshua Clint Hopper ("Plaintiff") filed a complaint on June 21, 2016 based on the 2007 incident. The complaint alleged that Obion County School System ("Obion") and Obion County, Tennessee, were liable for their negligent failure to protect Plaintiff from his injuries.[3] In August 2016, Obion filed a motion to dismiss, motion to strike, and an answer. Thereafter, the depositions of both Plaintiff and Jordan were taken. Additionally, the depositions of the teacher, the former principal, and the former director of schools were taken. In April 2019, Obion filed a motion for summary judgment. Plaintiff then filed a response. The trial court held a hearing on the motion in November 2019. In July 2020, the trial court entered an order denying Obion's motion for summary judgment. The trial court fully incorporated by reference the transcript of the hearing on the motion and attached the transcript to its order.[4]

In August 2020, Obion filed a motion to revise the order denying its motion for summary judgment, or in the alternative, a motion for interlocutory appeal. The trial court held a hearing on the motion in November 2020. In July 2021, the trial court entered an order granting Obion's motion for interlocutory appeal. Thereafter, Obion filed its application for permission to appeal. This Court granted permission to appeal in August 2021.

II. Issues Presented

Obion presents the following issue for review on appeal, which we have slightly restated:

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1. Whether the trial court properly denied Obion's motion for summary judgment.

For the following reasons, we reverse the decision of the trial court and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

III. Standard of Review

We review a trial court's decision on a summary judgment motion de novo with no presumption of correctness. Lemon v. Williamson Cnty. Schs., 618 S.W.3d 1, 12 (Tenn. 2021) (citing Tatham v. Bridgestone Ams. Holding, Inc., 473 S.W.3d 734, 748 (Tenn. 2015)). "Summary judgment is proper where the '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.'" Id. (quoting Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56.04). Therefore, "[o]ur standard of review requires 'a fresh determination of whether the requirements of Rule 56 of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure have been satisfied.'" Id. (quoting Rye v. Women's Care Ctr. of Memphis, MPLLC, 477 S.W.3d 235, 250 (Tenn. 2015)).

IV. Discussion

We begin by noting that this is an interlocutory appeal. See Tenn. R. App. P. 9. "The Court's review is limited to those questions clearly within the scope of the issue certified for interlocutory appeal." Fisher v. Hargett, 604 S.W.3d 381, 393 (Tenn. 2020) (citing Funk v. Scripps Media, Inc., 570 S.W.3d 205, 210 (Tenn. 2019)). The certified issue on appeal is the one which Obion presents: whether the trial court incorrectly denied Obion's motion for summary judgment. However, Plaintiff presents his own issues concerning the elements of negligence that are within the scope of the certified issue, which we will consider to the extent necessary.

When asserting a negligence claim, "a plaintiff must establish (1) a duty of care owed by the defendant to the plaintiff; (2) conduct by the defendant falling below the standard of care amounting to a breach of that duty; (3) an injury or loss; (4) causation in fact; and (5) proximate or legal cause." Satterfield v. Breeding Insulation Co., 266 S.W.3d 347, 355 (Tenn. 2008) (citing Naifeh v. Valley Forge Life Ins. Co., 204 S.W.3d 758, 771 (Tenn. 2006); Draper v. Westerfield, 181 S.W.3d 283, 290 (Tenn. 2005)). "[D]uty has become an essential element of all negligence claims, as well as a question of law to be determined by courts." Id. (citing West v. E. Tenn. Pioneer Oil Co., 172 S.W.3d 545, 550 (Tenn. 2005); Bradshaw v. Daniel, 854 S.W.2d 865, 869 (Tenn. 1993)). Therefore, Plaintiff's claim must fail if Obion did not owe him a duty.

We have explained that "[d]uty is the legal obligation a defendant owes to a plaintiff to exercise reasonable care in order to protect against unreasonable risks of harm." Nickelson v. Sumner Cnty. Bd. of Educ., No. 01A01-9807-CV-00375, 1999 WL 767813, at *2 (Tenn. Ct. App. Sept. 29, 1999);

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see McCall v. Wilder, 913 S.W.2d 150, 153 (Tenn. 1995). We have further explained that duty is "considered in relation to all the relevant circumstances, and the degree of foreseeability needed to establish a duty of care decreases in proportion to increases in the magnitude of the foreseeable harm." Id.; see Pittman v....

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