Academic journal article The University of Memphis Law Review

Torts-Chase V. City of Memphis: The Tennessee Governmental Tort Liability Act Meets the Special Duty Doctrine

Academic journal article The University of Memphis Law Review

Torts-Chase V. City of Memphis: The Tennessee Governmental Tort Liability Act Meets the Special Duty Doctrine

Article excerpt

On June 18, 1990, Betty Lou Stidham was mauled to death in her own backyard by two pit bull dogs.1 The dogs had a long history of violent behavior. Their owner, Edwin Hill, and his mother were attacked by the animals.2 Also, the previous owner of Stidham's house filed complaints about the animals with the Memphis Police Department in 1987 and 1989,3 and in January, 1990, five months before Stidham's death, the two dogs entered her yard and attacked and maimed her own pet.4 After the attack, Stidham contacted the City of Memphis Animal Shelter to file a vicious animal complaint.5 After evaluating the dogs, the shelter held a vicious animal hearing to determine whether the dogs were to be classified as vicious-a classification that would require the dogs to be seized and destroyed.6 During the hearing, the shelter determined that "the pit bulls did not appear to exhibit a vicious nature towards either humans or animals and found that the dogs were not 'vicious' based on the Animal Shelter's evaluation."7 Instead, the shelter categorized the dogs as "dangerous" because of their capability to inflict serious injury.8 Hill was ordered to enroll the dogs in an obedience training program and to repair any deficiencies in the fences surrounding his property.9 Shelter employees visited Hill's residence twice to determine whether he was complying with the order.10 Though Hill did not enroll his dogs in the required dog obedience training within the ninety-day time limit, the City of Memphis Animal Shelter failed to reclassify the dogs as vicious and seize them.11 Stidham was attacked and killed by the dogs later that same year.

Stidham's estate brought a wrongful death suit against the City of Memphis Animal Shelter based on its negligence under Tennessee's Governmental Tort Liability Act (GTLA)12 and for "wrongful death based on the creation of a special relationship and a nuisance."13 Sitting without a jury, the trial court found the City was negligent in "failing to follow-up on the obedience training requirement and failing to impound the dogs. The court further found that the vicious dog hearing was improperly conducted."14 The trial court found that the City had "assumed a special duty to Stidham to undertake certain acts which would have protected her . . . from the danger . . . presented by Edwin Hill's pit bull dogs."15 The court ruled that this duty was not a discretionary duty under the GTLA16 and found the City partially responsible for Stidham's death.17 The ruling was appealed to the Tennessee Court of Appeals.18 The court of appeals found that "the Animal Shelter's negligence in failing to follow-up on its order requiring [Hill] to enroll the dogs in obedience school was a discretionary act and that the City was immune from liability under the GTLA."19 The court then determined that the immunity granted under the GTLA was negated by "the `special duty' exception to the public duty doctrine,"20 and that the City was liable to Stidham's estate for her wrongful death.21 These rulings were appealed to the Supreme Court of Tennessee, which held, reversed.22 The actions of a governmental entity are not immune under the Governmental Tort Liability Act when the action was one that was operational in nature, and the special duty exception to the public duty doctrine can be used to negate any governmental immunity that is not conferred under the Act. Chase v. City of Memphis, 971 S.W.2d 380 (Tenn. 1998).

To understand the relationship between the issue of immunity under the Governmental Tort Liability Act and the special duty exception to the immunity afforded under the public duty doctrine, one must first understand the related background issue-sovereign, or governmental, immunity. Sovereign immunity has existed since the beginning of English common law, from the feudal days when the King of England reigned supreme. The king stood at the apex of the feudal pyramid and was the ultimate arbiter. There was no higher power to which to appeal any of the king's decisions; "the King [could] do no wrong. …

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