E. G. Moody, Chancellor (Service Ended August 31, 2022)


Reports of Cases Reviewed by Appellate Courts – Beginning Jan. 1, 2022

Text is the appellate court’s summary of the opinion.

Scroll down for important information.


Polhamus v State of Tennessee, No. E2021-01253-COA-R9-CV (Tenn. Ct App. June 2, 2022).  This case arises from a single-vehicle motorcycle accident at the intersection of State Route 1 and State Route 36 within the city limits of Kingsport, Tennessee. The cyclist contends the accident was caused by the failure of the State of Tennessee and the City of Kingsport to properly maintain the state highways; specifically, he alleges that their failure to repair a pothole caused the accident. The plaintiff filed a claim against the State with the Tennessee Division of Claims Administration, and shortly thereafter he commenced this action against the City in the Sullivan County Circuit Court. The claim against the State was later transferred and consolidated with the action against the City. Both the State and the City claimed immunity and moved for summary judgment. The State asserted that it had immunity because the City contractually agreed to maintain the highways where the accident occurred. The City asserted that it had immunity because the State owned the highways where the accident occurred. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the City upon the finding the City had immunity because it did not “own” the state highways; however, it denied the State’s motion because “[t]o hold that both the State and the City [were] immune from suit would be against public policy.” We granted this interlocutory appeal to address whether the State owed a duty to the plaintiff even though it contracted with the City to maintain the highways where the plaintiff’s accident occurred. Having closely reviewed the State’s contract with the City of Kingsport, we find nothing in the contract or in Tennessee Code Annotated §§ 54-5-201 and -203 that authorizes the State to delegate its responsibilities under § 9-8-307(a)(1)(I) “to exercise reasonable care under all the attendant circumstances in . . . maintaining the State system of highways” and (J) for “[d]angerous conditions on state maintained highways.” On the contrary, and as
§ 54-5-201 expressly provides, “the state’s obligation for maintenance of its system of highways shall be governed by those limitations now set out by law, it being the intent of this section neither to enlarge nor to diminish present obligations for this maintenance.” Because the State bears the ultimate responsibility for inspecting and maintaining state highways, we find the contract did not absolve the State of potential liability for failing to do so. Therefore, we affirm the trial court’s decision.

In Re Conservatorship of John F. Ress, No. E2021-00134-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 10, 2022).  This appeal concerns the trial court’s interpretation of a divorce decree and an incorporated marital dissolution agreement as applied in a conservatorship once the husband died. The wife appeals the trial court’s use of parol evidence in reaching its decision. We reverse the judgment.

Understanding the Limitations and Use of the Information Found in This Book

Tennessee’s trial judges resolve hundreds of thousands of legal and factual issues in tens of thousands of cases every single year.  No appeal is filed in the vast percentage of those cases, indicating that while the “losing” party may not like a ruling on a particular issue, that party understands there was an appropriate reason for the judge’s decision or, at a minimum, the judge was acting within his or her discretion.


Of course, a small number of decisions of trial judges do result in an appeal. Experienced trial lawyers know that the number of cases appealed out of a particular trial judge’s court does not, in and of itself, reveal much about the trial judge. For example, some judges hear more complex cases than others, and those cases are more likely to be appealed. Convictions in child sex abuse cases are frequently appealed, as are many criminal cases resulting in long sentences. There are a large number of parental rights termination cases that find their way to the appellate courts.  Judges who routinely try those types of cases will, other things being equal, see more of their cases reviewed by appellate courts than judges who do not see such cases.


Second, certain litigants (and certain lawyers) are more likely to appeal a case than others.  Thus, judges who have those litigants or lawyers regularly appear in their courtrooms will find more cases reviewed by the appellate courts.


For these and other reasons, the reader is cautioned not to read too much into the number of cases appealed from a court.  Stated differently, there is no reason to believe that a judge who has ten cases reviewed by an appellate court in a single year is a “worse” judge than one who has one case appealed, or that a judge who has three cases appealed is a “better” judge than one who has nine cases appealed.


Next, the number of times a judge’s ruling is reversed by an appellate court is not necessarily indicative of the quality of his or her work. For example, experienced lawyers know that there are “holes in the law,” i.e., cases where there is no law directly on point and the judge is forced to predict what an appellate court would rule on the issue. The fact that a judge decided an open legal issue one way and an appellate court decided it another way does not mean that the trial judge was “wrong” or does not understand the law. It simply means that the trial judge had a different view of what the law should be than the appellate court that decided the issue. A trial judge is not blessed with a crystal ball that can with 100 percent accuracy forecast how an appellate court will rule on an undecided legal issue.


In addition, the trial court is sometimes not provided with the same in-depth legal arguments and law that is supplied to the appellate court by the parties, or which is provided by law clerks at the appellate level (many trial courts do not have law clerks). The trial judge may have reached the same conclusion as the appellate court if he or she had been supplied with additional law or argument.


Finally, the law changes constantly, and the trial judge may rule on a case based on today’s law, which may evolve between the time of that ruling and the issuance of an opinion of the appellate court. In such cases, the reversal of the case by the appellate court is a question of timing of the original court decision as compared to changes in the law, not one of error by the trial court.


So, what is the value of this book?  How can the trial lawyer use it to help his or her clients given the limitations expressed above? Permit me to digress slightly.


You have seen the coffee cups or t-shirts that proclaim, “A good lawyer knows the law, but a great lawyer knows the judge.”


Some read this phrase as suggesting that the “great lawyer” is one who has an improper relationship with the judge – that he or she can use a personal relationship to improperly influence the judge.  But most lawyers know better.  Most lawyers understand that “knowing the judge” means knowing the judge’s background, preferences concerning the presentation of evidence (including exhibits), arguments of motions, drafting of proposed orders, and given that experience, how he or she is likely to rule on a particular issue.  “Knowing the judge” also means knowing the local rules, local forms, local customs, and what things irritate the judge (and every judge is irritated by at least one thing that lawyers or litigants may do).


Many lawyers, particularly those in more rural areas of the state or who limit their practice to one area of law, understand the personality and preferences of the judges they see on a regular basis. Many of these lawyers may have a fair advantage appearing before that judge. (The advantage is “fair” because it results from experience and knowledge.)  That advantage – knowing how the judge thinks and his or her preferences – is not outcome-determinative, but it still may be an advantage, similar to a sports team playing on their home field.


Why did I say it “may” be an advantage, given what I said earlier about the benefits of “knowing the judge?”  Because simply knowing the judge’s thought processes and preferences is not enough. You still need to have the law and the facts on your client’s side.  And you need to be prepared to be able to give the judge what he or she needs to know to make a ruling.


So, the purpose of “The Book” is to give Tennessee lawyers case-related information to help them understand the trial judge who will rule on their client’s case or preside over a jury trial. By looking at past appellate court rulings arising from cases decided by the trial judge, anyone unfamiliar with a judge can get a “feel” for the judge. The case data contained herein does not compare with daily or weekly appearances in front of the judge on issues like a given case, but it is readily available information that give you an idea of how the judge has ruled in the past on a variety of matters.


The cases included are those originally decided by the trial judge that were in appellate court opinions released on or after January 1, 2022.  Note that there are a substantial number of judges who first took office in 2022 and thus it is reasonable to assume that there will be no appellate decisions for such judges until late 2023 or 2024.



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