Appeal

Credibility of Witnesses – Deferral to Trial Court When It Is Trier of Fact

Except as indicated, all indented material is copied directly from the court’s opinion.

Decisions of the Tennessee Supreme Court

Wells v. Tennessee Bd. of Regents, 9 S.W.3d 779, 783 (Tenn.1999)).

Unlike appellate courts, trial courts are able to observe witnesses as they testify and to assess their demeanor, which best situates trial judges to evaluate witness credibility. See State v. Pruett, 788 S.W.2d 559, 561 (Tenn.1990); Bowman v. Bowman, 836 S.W.2d 563, 566 (Tenn.Ct.App.1991). Thus, trial courts are in the most favorable position to resolve factual disputes hinging on credibility determinations. See Tenn–Tex Properties v. Brownell–Electro, Inc., 778 S.W.2d 423, 425–26 (Tenn.1989); Mitchell v. Archibald, 971 S.W.2d 25, 29 (Tenn.Ct.App.1998). Accordingly, appellate courts will not re-evaluate a trial judge’s assessment of witness credibility absent clear and convincing evidence to the contrary. See Humphrey v. David Witherspoon, Inc., 734 S.W.2d 315, 315–16 (Tenn.1987); Bingham v. Dyersburg Fabrics Co., Inc., 567 S.W.2d 169, 170 (Tenn.1978).

Opinions of the Tennessee Court of Appeals

 

Barnes v. Barnes, No. M2022-00328-COA-R3-CV, p. 8 (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 17, 2023). 

Tennessee appellate courts “afford trial courts considerable deference when reviewing issues that hinge on the witnesses’ credibility because trial courts are ‘uniquely positioned to observe the demeanor and conduct of witnesses.’” Kelly v. Kelly, 445 S.W.3d 685, 692 (Tenn. 2014) (quoting State v. Binette, 33 S.W.3d 215, 217 (Tenn. 2000)). Appellate courts will not re-evaluate a trial judge’s credibility determination absent clear and convincing evidence to the contrary. Kelly, 445 S.W.3d at 692 (quoting Wells v. Tennessee Bd. of Regents, 9 S.W.3d 779, 783 (Tenn. 1999)); Kincade v. Kincade, No. M2017-00797-COA-R3-CV, 2018 WL 1631415, at *5 (Tenn. Ct. App. Apr. 4, 2018). For evidence to be clear and convincing, it must eliminate any “serious or substantial doubt about the correctness of the conclusions drawn from the evidence.” State v. Sexton, 368 S.W.3d 371, 404 (Tenn. 2012) (quoting Grindstaff v. State, 297 S.W.3d 208, 221 (Tenn. 2009)).

Waddell v. Waddell, No. W2020-00220-COA-R3-CV, p. 44 (Tenn. Ct. App. Mar. 14, 2023).

In Wells v. Tennessee Board of Regents, 9 S.W.3d 779 (Tenn. 1999), the Tennessee Supreme Court explained that

trial courts are able to observe witnesses as they testify and to assess their demeanor, which best situates trial judges to evaluate witness credibility. See State v. Pruett, 788 S.W.2d 559, 561 (Tenn. 1990); Bowman v. Bowman, 836 S.W.2d 563, 566 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1991). Thus, trial courts are in the most favorable position to resolve factual disputes hinging on credibility determinations. See Tenn-Tex Properties v. Brownell-Electro, Inc., 778 S.W.2d 423, 425-26 (Tenn. 1989); Mitchell v. Archibald, 971 S.W.2d 25, 29 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1998). Accordingly, appellate courts will not re-evaluate a trial judge’s assessment of witness credibility absent clear and convincing evidence to the contrary. See Humphrey v. David Witherspoon, Inc., 734 S.W.2d 315, 315-16 (Tenn. 1987); Bingham v. Dyersburg Fabrics Co., Inc., 567 S.W.2d 169, 170 (Tenn. 1978).

Wells, 9 S.W.3d at 783. Although this Court routinely defers to a trial judge’s assessment of a witness’ credibility, such findings are not absolute. Rather, where there is clear and convincing evidence undermining a trial court’s credibility finding, this Court will reverse the finding and proceed with its review on the evidence alone. Id.

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