City Immune from Suit where it does not Own or Control Property Where Injury Occurred

          Under the Governmental Tort Liability Act (GTLA), governmental immunity is removed in specific circumstances. Where the government does not own or control the property on which the alleged injury took place, however, the GTLA does not apply and immunity remains intact.

            In Turner v. City of Bean Station, No. E2013-02630-COA-R9-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Dec. 30, 2014), plaintiff sued the city, among others, for injuries allegedly sustained while playing softball in a charity tournament. The city moved for summary judgment on the basis that it neither controlled nor owned the field, and that the GTLA therefore did not apply and the city was immune from suit. The trial court denied the motion, but the Court of Appeals reversed that decision and dismissed the case against the city.

            The city had presented evidence that the field in question was owned by the Tennessee Valley Authority, which had given the city a license to occupy and use the field as a recreational ball park. The city, in turn, leased the license to the local little league, and the little league oversaw the maintenance of the park and field. On the date of the alleged injury, the little league had “subleased” its license to the person running the charity tournament (another of the defendants in this case).

            In Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-20-204(a), the GTLA removes governmental liability for “any injury caused by the dangerous or defective condition of any public building, structure, . . . or other public improvement owned and controlled by [a] governmental entity.” To prove a premises liability claim under the GTLA claim, then, a plaintiff must show that the governmental entity both owns and controls the location where the injury occurred. Through affidavits, discovery, and exhibits, the city showed that it neither owned the ball field in question nor did it control its upkeep and maintenance, and under the GTLA plaintiff would have had to prove both. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals held that “the City has demonstrated that plaintiff cannot establish an essential element of his premises liability claim…. Consequently, the GTLA does not remove the City’s governmental immunity.”

            Although this appears to be a harsh result, it is probably correct given the facts of this case. This scenario serves to remind practitioners to fully research a case before filing, especially when depending on the GTLA. In a premises liability case, it is important to identify all entities that exert ownership or control over a property to ensure that the correct parties are all named in a timely fashion. 

            Note with interest the "owned and controlled" language.  Does this mean that a local government can never be sued when it leases land, with the sole duty to maintain it, and unquestionably controls it?  Perhaps suit would have to be filed under a different section of the GTLA to avoid this issue.