Understanding the Right to a Jury Trial in Tennessee Personal Injury Cases
In most civil cases, such as personal injury claims, either party has the right to demand a trial by jury. Furthermore, the parties have the right to question potential jurors about their potential biases and prior knowledge of the case. Tennessee law further allows each party–the plaintiff and the defendant–to challenge (exclude) four potential jurors “without assigning any cause.” These are known as peremptory challenges.
TN Court Orders New Trial in Wrongful Death Case Against Hospital
But what happens if there is more than one plaintiff, or more than one defendant? In that event, state law says there shall be eight peremptory challenges allowed for the side with multiple parties, to be divided as the trial judge sees fit. Note that it does not matter how many additional parties exist. In other words, if there are two plaintiffs to the same personal injury case, they collectively receive eight challenges. But if there are four defendants, they are still limited to eight total challenges.
If a trial court fails to award multiple parties their additional peremptory challenges, that is grounds for ordering a new trial. Indeed, this is exactly what happened in a recent case addressed by the Tennessee Court of Appeals. This particular case raised the question of whether parents who jointly file a wrongful death lawsuit should be treated as a single or multiple parties.
The plaintiffs lost their infant child, who was under the care of the defendant hospital. They alleged the hospital’s negligence caused their son’s death. The hospital maintained the child had a preexisting medical condition and that, not its conduct, was the actual cause of death.
The case was tried before a jury, which ruled in favor of the hospital. During voir dire–the process of questioning potential jurors–the plaintiffs asked for eight peremptory challenges, nothing that each parent constituted a separate plaintiff. The hospital argued that since this was a wrongful death case the “real” plaintiff was the estate, which is a single entity. The judge agreed with the defendant and only permitted the plaintiffs peremptory challenges.
The Court of Appeals ruled this was an error. The appellate court noted the Tennessee Supreme Court recently “abandoned” its longstanding view that “a wrongful death action is brought in a representative capacity on behalf of the decedent.” Instead, the Supreme Court recognized that a wrongful death claim “is brought by the statutory beneficiaries on their own behalf.” Here, the statutory beneficiaries are both of the deceased child’s parents, each of whom has an equal right to pursue a wrongful death claim. The trial court therefore should have treated them as multiple plaintiffs and given them eight peremptory challenges. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals ordered a new trial.
Need Help From a Tennessee Wrongful Death & Personal Injury Lawyer?
Wrongful death and other personal injury lawsuits often raise highly technical questions of law, the answers to which can significantly impact a victim’s rights and damage award. If you need advice in pursuing a wrongful death claim from an experienced Knoxville personal injury lawyer, contact the offices of Fox, Farley, Willis & Burnette, Attorneys at Law, today.