McCall v. Wilder

Decision Date11 December 1995
Citation913 S.W.2d 150
PartiesLisa A. McCALL, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Edgar A. WILDER, Administrator of the Estate of James Robert Ratley, Sr., Deceased, Defendant-Appellee.
CourtTennessee Supreme Court

Eugene B. Dixon, Koella & Dixon, Maryville, for Plaintiff/Appellant.

James S. MacDonald, Jenkins & Jenkins, Knoxville, for Defendant/Appellee.


WHITE, Justice.

In this negligence action seeking damages for personal injury and property damage, Lisa A. McCall, appellant, appeals from the decision of the Court of Appeals affirming the trial court's grant of summary judgment in favor of appellee, Edgar A. Wilder, administrator of the estate of James Robert Ratley, Sr., deceased. We granted plaintiff's application for permission to appeal to decide an issue not previously faced by this Court: whether, and under what circumstances, the driver of a motor vehicle who suddenly loses control of the vehicle because of physical incapacitation caused by a known medical condition may be liable for personal injury or property damages. We hold that liability may be imposed upon the driver who knows of the medically incapacitating disorder, and who poses an unreasonable risk of harm to others by driving under circumstances such that a reasonably prudent person could foresee an accident. For the reasons set forth below, the judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed and the case remanded for trial.

I. Facts and Background

Plaintiff sued defendant in the Blount County General Sessions Court alleging that defendant's decedent hit plaintiff's vehicle head-on damaging the vehicle and injuring plaintiff. Following the entry of a default against defendant, the case was appealed to the Blount County Circuit Court where defendant moved for summary judgment. The basis for defendant's motion was that the accident was an unavoidable consequence of a sudden emergency created when the decedent suffered a seizure while driving. Defendant's motion was supported by the affidavit of a board certified physician practicing in the field of neurosurgery who treated decedent from the day of the accident until his death approximately three months later. According to the affidavit, a CT scan performed on the decedent after the accident revealed evidence of a brain tumor. Further evaluation and testing revealed that the tumor was located in a "very highly epileptogenic region of [the] brain." Surgery confirmed the presence of the brain tumor. The doctor opined that the tumor was present in decedent's brain on the day of the accident and that it made him susceptible to seizures. Therefore, the doctor concluded, within a reasonable degree of medical certainty, "that it is very likely that [decedent] suffered a seizure while driving his vehicle ... which in turn caused the motor vehicle accident of December 12, 1990."

In response to defendant's motion for summary judgment, plaintiff filed the affidavit of a board certified physician concentrating in the fields of pathology and laboratory medicine. The affidavit reflected the parties' stipulations that decedent had experienced seizures prior to the day of the accident and that decedent knew he had a seizure disorder which caused loss of consciousness. The affidavit concluded, based upon independent research, including a review of decedent's medical records, consultation with a neurologist, a neuropathologist, and a family practitioner, that decedent "took an unreasonable risk by driving his vehicle knowing he suffered from a seizure disorder which caused a loss of consciousness. It was certainly foreseeable that an accident might occur if [decedent] experienced a seizure while driving his vehicle."

The trial court granted defendant's motion for summary judgment. In a divided decision, the Court of Appeals affirmed. The majority of the court reasoned that the case fell within the "established principles in this state that an automobile accident resulting from an unavoidable sudden emergency, such as an epileptic seizure, negates negligence." Summary judgment was appropriate, the majority concluded, based upon the affidavit filed by defendant which established that the accident was caused by the seizure. Additionally, the majority rejected the affidavit filed by plaintiff as a legal conclusion insufficient to establish a material issue of fact.

The dissenting judge, Judge Crawford, concluded that the affidavit filed by defendant likewise contained a legal, rather than medical, opinion pertaining to the cause of the accident. The dissent viewed the issue in the case as "whether the driver acted unreasonably in that he should have foreseen the accident." Accordingly, the dissent concluded that summary judgment should have been reversed and the matter remanded for trial.

We granted plaintiff's application for permission to appeal to address the question of whether, and under what circumstances, liability may be imposed upon the driver of a car who suddenly loses control because the driver is rendered physically incapacitated by a medical disorder known to the driver.

II. Background
A. Principles related to Summary Judgment

Since this case is before the Court on the trial court's grant of summary judgment we are guided by well-established legal principles. We must review the record without attaching any presumption of correctness to the trial court's judgment to determine whether the absence of genuine issues of material facts entitle the movant to judgment as a matter of law. Carvell v. Bottoms, 900 S.W.2d 23 (Tenn.1995); Anderson v. Standard Register Co., 857 S.W.2d 555, 559 (Tenn.1993); Byrd v. Hall, 847 S.W.2d 208 (Tenn.1993). In reviewing the record, we must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party drawing all inferences in that party's favor. If the facts and conclusions permit a reasonable person to reach only one conclusion, summary judgment should be granted. Carvell v. Bottoms, 900 S.W.2d at 23.

B. Principles related to Negligence

Guided by these well-established principles, we turn to the controlling substantive law of negligence. A claim of negligence requires proof of the following elements: (1) a duty of care owed by defendant to plaintiff; (2) conduct below the applicable standard of care that amounts to a breach of that duty; (3) an injury or loss; (4) cause in fact; and (5) proximate, or legal, cause. Kilpatrick v. Bryant, 868 S.W.2d 594, 598 (Tenn.1993); Bradshaw v. Daniel, 854 S.W.2d 865, 869 (Tenn.1993); McClenahan v. Cooley, 806 S.W.2d 767, 774 (Tenn.1991). Our resolution of this case focuses on the first two elements: duty of care and breach.

Although the concept of duty was not part of the early English common law of torts, it has since become an essential element in all negligence cases. Bradshaw v. Daniel, 854 S.W.2d at 869. Properly defined, duty is the legal obligation owed by defendant to plaintiff to conform to a reasonable person standard of care for the protection against unreasonable risks of harm. See Pittman v. Upjohn Co., 890 S.W.2d 425, 428 (Tenn.1994); Nichols v. Atnip, 844 S.W.2d 655, 661 (Tenn.App.), perm. to appeal denied, (Tenn.1992); W. Keeton, Prosser and Keeton on the Law of Torts, § 53 (5th ed. 1984). A risk is unreasonable and gives rise to a duty to act with due care if the foreseeable probability and gravity of harm posed by defendant's conduct outweigh the burden upon defendant to engage in alternative conduct that would have prevented the harm. Restatement (Second) of Torts, § 291 (1964) ("Where an act is one which a reasonable [person] would recognize as involving a risk of harm to another, the risk is unreasonable and the act is negligent if the risk is of such magnitude as to outweigh what the law regards as the utility of the act or of the particular manner in which it is done.").

Several factors must be considered in determining whether a risk is an unreasonable one. Those factors include the foreseeable probability of the harm or injury occurring; the possible magnitude of the potential harm or injury; the importance or social value of the activity engaged in by defendant; the usefulness of the conduct to defendant; the feasibility of alternative, safer conduct and the relative costs and burdens associated with that conduct; the relative usefulness of the safer conduct; and the relative safety of alternative conduct. Restatement (Second) of Torts, §§ 292, 293 (1964). Stated succinctly, a duty of reasonable care exists if defendant's conduct poses an unreasonable and foreseeable risk of harm to persons or property.

Once it is determined that defendant owed plaintiff a legal obligation to conform to a reasonable person standard of conduct, i.e., a duty--the question becomes whether defendant failed to exercise reasonable care under the circumstances, i.e., whether defendant breached the duty. "What the defendant must do, or must not do, is a question of the standard of conduct required to satisfy the duty." Prosser and Keeton on the Law of Torts, supra, at § 356.

In a negligence action, the standard of conduct is always the same. It is a standard of reasonable care in light of the apparent risk. Id. See also Pittman v. Upjohn Co., 890 S.W.2d at 428 ("As in all cases, there is a duty to exercise reasonable care under the circumstances."); Bradshaw v. Daniel, 854 S.W.2d at 870 ("All persons have a duty to use reasonable care to refrain from conduct that will foreseeably cause injury to others."). If defendant does not exercise reasonable care, defendant has breached the duty. Doe v. Linder Const. Co., Inc., 845 S.W.2d 173, 178 (Tenn.1992).

C. Negligence in Physical Incapacity Circumstances

Perhaps surprisingly, this Court has not previously dealt with the liability of one who suddenly loses consciousness or control from a known medical disorder while driving. The Court of Appeals has faced the issue, but in only a limited number of cases, many of which are unpublished. In...

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