Another Water-on-Floor Slip and Fall Falls

The Court of Appeals recently affirmed summary judgment in a premises liability case where plaintiff could not prove defendant’s actual or constructive knowledge of the allegedly dangerous condition.

In Landrum v. Methodist Medical Center, No. E2015-01733-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. July 25, 2016), plaintiff was visiting her mother, who was a patient at defendant hospital, when she slipped and fell in a puddle of water on the floor. The puddle was near the 5th floor nurses’ station and was fairly large, estimated to be two to three square feet in size. Plaintiff fell when returning to her mother’s room on the 5th floor, having left the room 15 minutes earlier by the same route. Plaintiff testified that when leaving the room, she did not notice the puddle, and that she did not see it until she had already fallen. Plaintiff “did not know what caused the puddle or how long the puddle had existed.”

Defendant hospital submitted depositions from two employees, both of whom were at the nearby nurses’ station when plaintiff fell. One stated that he did not see the puddle until plaintiff fell and that he “had no knowledge regarding what caused the puddle or how long the puddle had existed.” The other testified that the puddle was “large,” and that she did not see the puddle until after the fall and had no knowledge of what caused it or how long it had been there.

The trial court granted summary judgment to defendant, finding that plaintiffs “failed to demonstrate ‘that Methodist Medical Center had actual or constructive knowledge of the dangerous condition’ and held specifically that [plaintiffs], as a matter of law, ‘failed to proffer material evidence that established the cause or source of the dangerous condition or the actual length of time the condition was present.’” The Court of Appeals affirmed.

To recover in premises liability, a plaintiff must show that the dangerous condition was caused by the property owner or “that the owner had actual or constructive notice that the condition existed prior to the accident.” (internal citation omitted). One way to show constructive notice, and the theory the plaintiffs were advancing here, is to show that the dangerous condition “was not caused or created by the defendant, but existed for long enough such that the defendant should have become aware of it[.]” (internal citation omitted). When proceeding under this theory, “there must be material evidence from which the trier of fact could conclude the condition existed for sufficient time and under such circumstances that one exercising reasonable care and diligence would have discovered the danger.” (internal citation omitted).

Here, the Court determined that plaintiffs did not have the requisite proof to support their case. The Court reasoned:

We can find no proof in the record that could potentially establish that Methodist had constructive knowledge of the puddle that caused [plaintiff] to fall. There is no evidence in the record indicating the source of the puddle, and we do not believe there is any evidence in the record to infer that Methodist’s employees should have discovered the puddle before [plaintiff’s] fall, especially considering [plaintiff’s] testimony that she traversed the same route not more than 15 minutes prior and that she did not notice the puddle until she had already fallen.

Accordingly, the Court ruled that there was no evidence from which a trier of fact could find that “the dangerous condition existed for such a length of time that one exercising reasonable care and diligence would have discovered it,” and summary judgment was affirmed.

Proving a premises liability case can be a difficult task, and this case reminds us that evidence that a plaintiff fell is almost always not enough to support a claim. It’s unclear whether the plaintiff here attempted to gather additional evidence—did she ask to pull hospital tapes (if they existed) to determine the source of the water and how long it had been on the floor? Did she try to determine whether there had been previous issues with water on the floor in this particular area? Premises liability plaintiffs must remember that they need evidence to show that the defendant had actual or constructive notice of the dangerous condition. Without such evidence, a premises liability action will most likely fail.