Tennessee Supreme Court Affirms Trial Court's Denial of Motion to Set Aside a Final Order

December 18, 2017

The Tennessee Supreme Court unanimously affirmed a Shelby County trial court’s decision denying relief from a final order of dismissal in a wrongful death case because the party filing the motion waited too long to seek relief.

In December 2008, Derek Hussey died after being detained and handcuffed by the manager of a Family Dollar store in Memphis. Mr. Hussey’s mother, Mae L. Chearis, and Sharondra Harris, the mother of his only child, hired a lawyer to represent them in a wrongful death suit against Family Dollar Store. Later, the lawyer decided not to handle the case and notified a family member. Ms. Chearis learned of his decision but Ms. Harris did not.

The day before the one-year statute of limitations expired on the wrongful death suit, Ms. Chearis, through a different lawyer and without telling Ms. Harris, filed a wrongful death suit as Mr. Hussey’s next of kin in the Circuit Court for Shelby County. Under Tennessee’s wrongful death statute, a wrongful death action may be brought by a personal representative or surviving spouse of the deceased, or if there is no surviving spouse, by the children of the deceased or by his next of kin. Ms. Chearis and Family Dollar settled the claim, Family Dollar paid Ms. Chearis the agreed amount, and the trial court dismissed the case. Ms. Chearis did not share the settlement proceeds with Mr. Hussey’s child.

Twenty months later, Ms. Harris filed a motion for her child under Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 60.02 to set aside the order and to be substituted as the plaintiff. She argued that the child, not Ms. Chearis, was the next of kin and had priority to bring the case. Ms. Harris contended that before his death, Mr. Hussey signed court documents admitting that he was the child’s father. The trial court denied Ms. Harris’s motion because she did not file it timely. The Court of Appeals vacated the trial court’s decision, holding that the trial court should not have heard the motion to set aside the order of dismissal until it conclusively established the child’s paternity.

The Tennessee Supreme Court agreed to hear the case and affirmed the trial court. In an opinion authored by Justice Sharon G. Lee, the Court held that the Court of Appeals erred by focusing on issues surrounding the child’s paternity rather than reviewing the correctness of the trial court’s ruling on the motion to set aside the order of dismissal. A trial court may set aside a final order under Rule 60.02 only in limited circumstances. Under Rule 60.02, a party asserting mistake, inadvertence, excusable neglect, fraud or misconduct of an adverse party must file the motion within one year of entry of the judgment. A party asserting that a judgment is void or any other reason justifying relief must file the motion within a reasonable time. Here, the motion was filed twenty months after entry of the order.

The Court concluded that Ms. Harris, on behalf of the child, failed to show by sufficient proof that the judgment was void because the trial court had subject matter jurisdiction, the judgment was within the pleadings, and the trial court had personal jurisdiction over all the parties. Further, the Supreme Court ruled that a motion for relief based on “any other reason justifying relief” that is filed more than a year after a trial court enters a judgment is generally untimely unless extraordinary circumstances excuse the party’s failure to seek relief sooner. The Supreme Court held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in ruling that Ms. Harris’s motion was not filed within a reasonable time based on her failure to establish that extraordinary circumstances excused her delay. The Supreme Court reinstated the trial court’s denial of the motion to set aside the order of dismissal.

To read the unanimous opinion in Derek Hussey, et al. v. Michael Woods, et al., authored by Justice Sharon G. Lee, visit the Opinions section of TNCourts.gov.