Twenty Holdings, LLC v. Land S. TN, LLC, No. M2018-01903-COA-R3-CV

CourtCourt of Appeals of Tennessee
Writing for the CourtJ. STEVEN STAFFORD, JUDGE
PartiesTWENTY HOLDINGS, LLC v. LAND SOUTH TN, LLC AND BRANDON MAJORS
Decision Date05 September 2019
Docket NumberNo. M2018-01903-COA-R3-CV

TWENTY HOLDINGS, LLC
v.
LAND SOUTH TN, LLC AND BRANDON MAJORS

No. M2018-01903-COA-R3-CV

COURT OF APPEALS OF TENNESSEE AT NASHVILLE

July 9, 2019 Session
September 5, 2019


Appeal from the Circuit Court for Davidson County
No. 16C-769
Hamilton V. Gayden, Jr., Judge

Plaintiff sued defendant-company and its employee for damages to its real property when the defendant-company's tractor-trailer collided with the plaintiff's residential properties while the truck was unmanned. The plaintiff raised claims of negligence, gross negligence, recklessness, trespass, negligent hiring, negligent entrustment, and punitive damages. A jury trial occurred, and the trial court granted the defendants' motion for a directed verdict as to all but the plaintiff's negligence claim. The jury later awarded the plaintiff $185,000.00 for the diminution in value to the real property. Both parties appealed. Discerning no reversible error, we affirm.

Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Circuit Court Affirmed

J. STEVEN STAFFORD, P.J., W.S., delivered the opinion of the court, in which RICHARD H. DINKINS and W. NEAL MCBRAYER, JJ., joined.

Roland W. Baggott, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellant, Twenty Holdings, LLC.

David B. Scott and Kobina P. Ankumah, Nashville, and Jay W. Mader, Knoxville, Tennessee, for the appellees, Land South TN, LLC, and Brandon Majors.

OPINION

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Plaintiff/Appellant Twenty Holdings, LLC ("Plaintiff") owned real property in Nashville consisting of a duplex rented to two separate tenants. A nearby tenant, Defendant/Appellee Brandon Majors, drove a 2008 Mack Truck ("the truck" or "the tractor") for his employer, Defendant/Appellee Land South TN, LLC ("Land South" and together with Mr. Majors, "Defendants"). On December 5, 2015, Mr. Majors parked the

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truck, with an attached 53 foot trailer (together with the tractor, "the tractor-trailer"), near his residence at the top of a steep hill with the front of the truck pointing toward the drop off of the hill and toward Plaintiff's property. According to Mr. Majors's later testimony, he parked the tractor-trailer on a relatively flat portion of land before a drop off, which he believed was safe due to his more than a decade of experience driving trucks of this kind. Moreover, he testified that he took various precautions in securing the tractor-trailer, including engaging the parking brake, placing garden timbers under the wheels, letting the trailer down, and placing the tractor-trailer in reverse.

Despite the precautions, within hours of parking the tractor-trailer at his residence, the tractor-trailer rolled down the hill for a distance of approximately 600 feet. The trailer of the truck detached and stopped on the hill; the truck, however, barreled into Plaintiff's properties, stopping in one home's living area. Two residents were home during the collision, but fortunately were uninjured.

Plaintiff filed a complaint against Defendants on March 21, 2016, asserting claims of negligence, gross negligence, recklessness, trespass, vicarious liability, negligent entrustment, negligent hiring, and punitive damages. The complaint alleged that the collision had caused significant damage to Plaintiff's properties, as it destroyed a common fire wall between the properties, as well as the properties' front brick wall. The complaint sought $350,000.00 in compensation for all the claims other than the claim for punitive damages, for which Plaintiff sought $500,000.00.

Defendants filed an answer on May 13, 2016, admitting that Plaintiff's property was damaged but denying all liability. Later, on June 28, 2017, Defendants filed a motion for partial summary judgment, seeking dismissal of the punitive damages claim. Plaintiff responded in opposition to Defendants' motion for partial summary judgment on August 28, 2017.

In the meantime, on August 3, 2017, Plaintiff filed a motion in limine and request for sanctions alleging that Defendants had sold the tractor-trailer, spoliating critical evidence. Plaintiff noted that it learned that the tractor-trailer was no longer in Defendants' possession by virtue of interrogatories sent on August 29, 2016, and answered on October 27, 2016. The tractor, however, was sold on September 12, 2016. As such, Plaintiff sought an order of default judgment against Defendants or, in the alternative, an order establishing that the tractor-trailer was not in good working order, was not parked in a safe manner, that these facts were known to Defendants, and that Defendants acted in conscious disregard of known risks. Plaintiff also sought to prevent Defendants from presenting evidence opposing Plaintiff's claims, as well as a jury instruction requiring a negative inference that examination of the tractor-trailer would have been detrimental to Defendants.

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Defendants responded in opposition to Plaintiff's motion in limine relative to spoliation. Therein, Defendants noted that Plaintiff did not request to inspect the tractor-trailer, but merely asked via interrogatory for the location of the truck, in its August 2016 interrogatory. According to Defendants, Plaintiff only asked to inspect the truck in a third request for production served on or about March 17, 2017, nearly a year after the filing of the complaint. Defendants also too issue with Plaintiff's attempts to conflate the tractor with the trailer involved in the accident; while the tractor, i.e., the truck, was sold, the trailer was not sold and was available for inspection.

On September 5, 2017, the trial court entered an order denying Defendants' motion for partial summary judgment and granting, in part, Plaintiff's first motion in limine. With regard to spoliation, the trial court explained as follows:

After due proceedings had before this Court and upon considering the pleadings, memoranda, evidence submitted to this Court, the arguments of the parties and the oral arguments of Counsel at the hearing, this Court:
FINDS that the defendants did not have an obligation to ask this Court for permission to sell the Tractor in this case, but did have an obligation to act in good faith;
FINDS that the Tractor was in the control of the defendants;
FINDS that the defendant knew or should have known that the Tractor was relevant to this litigation;
FINDS the defendants did not act in good faith when they sold the Tractor;
FINDS that the plaintiff was prejudiced by the defendants' sale of the Tractor;
FINDS that the spoliation of the Tractors by the defendants is clear; and
FINDS that the evidence that Tractor would have supplied would have been unfavorable to the defendants.

THEREFORE, IT IS ORDERED, ADJUDGED AND DECREED, that the plaintiff's First Motion in Limine and for Rule 37 Sanctions Due to Spoliation of Evidence is GRANTED. Considering the totality of the circumstances, this Court, in its discretion, declines to enter the sanctions proposed by the plaintiff and determines that the proper sanction is that this Court will provide a negative inference related to the Tractor and will: (a) instruct the jury in this matter that the defendants spoliated the Tractor in bad faith so that the evidence the Tractor would have provided could not be brought to this Court; (b) instruct the jury that it may draw a negative inference related to the Tractor due to its spoliation, specifically including that it may, for all purposes, infer that the Tractor was not in good working condition and that it may infer that evidence that would have been provided

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by the Tractor would be unfavorable to the defendants. Plaintiff is directed to prepare the jury instruction, which shall be submitted to this Court at the appropriate time before trial.

The trial court further ruled that the spoliation of evidence could be related to Plaintiff's punitive damages claim. As such, the trial court denied Defendants' motion for partial summary judgment as to that claim.

Plaintiff filed a second motion in limine on April 27, 2018. Among other things, Plaintiff sought entry of an order declaring the truck a "commercial vehicle" rather than a "farm vehicle," and a jury instruction directing the jury to draw a negative inference from Defendants' failure to comply with regulations applicable to commercial vehicles. Plaintiff also sought an order that the proper measure of damages was cost of repair.

In addition to filing a response to Plaintiff's second motion in limine relative to damages, Defendants filed their own motion in limine on April 27, 2018. Therein, Defendants asked the trial court to determine the proper measure of damages in advance of trial. Specifically, Defendants asked that Plaintiff be prevented from arguing that the measure of damages should be cost of repair and that the measure of damages be set as the difference between the reasonable market value of the property prior to and after the collision. Plaintiff responded in opposition to Defendants' motion in limine on May 7, 2018, requesting that the trial court rule, as a matter of law, that the damage to Plaintiff's property was temporary and the proper measure of damages is cost to repair.

The trial court entered an order on June 11, 2018, denying the parties' motions in limine relative to the measure of damages. Instead, the trial court ruled that the jury would first decide by questionnaire whether the damage to Plaintiff's property was temporary or permanent and the trial court would thereafter instruct the jury on the proper measure of damages. The trial court also denied Plaintiff's motion in limine related to whether the tractor was a farm or commercial vehicle. As such, the trial court ruled that neither party would be permitted to present evidence as to this issue.

Plaintiff filed a third motion in limine on June 20, 2018, requesting inter alia, an order preventing Defendants from presenting any evidence "that contradicts" the trial court's previous order finding spoliation of the tractor. The trial court eventually...

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