Tennessee Supreme Court Clarifies Procedure For Appeals From General Sessions To Circuit Court

April 17, 2020

In a collection case against a Hamilton County auto parts store, the Tennessee Supreme Court today clarified the procedure and jurisdiction for an appeal from a county general sessions court to a state circuit court. The Supreme Court found that when defendants appeal a general sessions judgment to circuit court, but then fail to appear for the circuit court trial, Tennessee law requires circuit courts to enter a default judgment against the defendant, subject to enforcement in the circuit court, and retain jurisdiction over that case.

In 2012, Ken Smith Auto Parts began to sell products to CCW Systems, Inc., on an open account. The CCW account later became delinquent and CCW went out of business. In 2017, Ken Smith filed a collection action in the Hamilton County General Sessions Court against Michael Thomas, the owner of CCW. Mr. Thomas did not appear in court on the day of the trial and the General Sessions Court entered a default judgment against him. Mr. Thomas appealed this judgment to the 11th Judicial District Circuit Court, which covers Hamilton County.

Under Tennessee law, when a general sessions court judgment is appealed to circuit court, the circuit court conducts an entirely new trial. The Circuit Court trial against Mr. Thomas was set in Chattanooga for October 17, 2017, at 9 a.m.  During that time, Mr. Thomas was living in Knoxville. He left Knoxville around 6 a.m. the morning of the trial.  Along the way, Mr. Thomas encountered a wreck on the highway that forced him to sit in traffic for two hours. Consequently, he never made it to the Circuit Court trial.

Because Mr. Thomas did not appear for his trial, the Circuit Court dismissed his appeal and sent the case back to the General Sessions court for enforcement of the General Sessions’ judgment. After Mr. Thomas filed a motion with the Circuit Court explaining why he was prevented from attending the October 17 trial, the Circuit Court first set aside its order of dismissal, but later reversed itself, finding it no longer had jurisdiction to set aside its prior order.

Mr. Thomas appealed to the Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals held that the Circuit Court did have jurisdiction and was correct in setting aside its dismissal of Mr. Thomas’s appeal from the General Sessions court. It reinstated the Circuit Court’s order setting aside its dismissal.  

The Tennessee Supreme Court then granted Ken Smith permission to appeal. The Supreme Court held that, under Tennessee law, instead of sending the case back to General Sessions court, the Circuit Court should have entered its own default judgment against Mr. Thomas in the amount of the General Sessions’ judgment, subject to enforcement in the Circuit Court. It also held that, after the Circuit Court committed error by dismissing Mr. Thomas’s appeal and sending the case back to General Sessions court, the Circuit Court had jurisdiction to grant Mr. Thomas’s motion to set aside that order. Consequently, the Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals’ judgment in favor of Mr. Thomas.          

To read the unanimous opinion in Ken Smith Auto Parts v. Michael F. Thomas, authored by Justice Holly Kirby, go to the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.