Negligent Failure to Have a Nightlight? Nope

 The Tennessee Court of Appeals recently affirmed the dismissal of plaintiff’s premises case in Smith v. Stanley,  No. E2013-00886-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. May 12, 2014).

Plaintiff visited a cabin with her sister and cousin. The cabin was owned by defendants, who are plaintiff’s aunt and uncle. Plaintiff was the first to enter the cabin after her cousin opened and held the door open for her. It was nighttime, and the inside of the cabin was completely black. There were light switches inside the cabin beside the entry way, but plaintiff did not turn them on. Plaintiff took at least one step and probably several more before she fell backwards down a staircase.  She was knocked unconscious from the fall and suffered multiple injuries.

The trial court granted summary judgment after finding that defendants did not owe plaintiff any duty. Relying on the Tennessee Supreme Court case of Eaton v. McLain, 891 SW.2d 587 (Tenn. 1994), the trial court ruled that it was not reasonably foreseeable that plaintiff would enter an unfamiliar area in the dark without turning on any lights.

Plaintiff appealed, but the appellate court found, just as the trial court, that plaintiff’s case could not be distinguished in any material way from the facts and holding in Eaton, and therefore Eaton controlled and plaintiff’s case must fail.

The appellate court defined the material issue as whether the plaintiff had made any showing from which it can be said that the defendants reasonably knew or should have known of the probability of an occurrence such as the one which caused her injuries.

According to the appellate court, stairs leading from a hallway to a basement are a common feature in a home, are not inherently dangerous, and do not give rise to a duty to warn without some further showing of latent or hidden danger. Plaintiff did not present any evidence that the staircase at issue constituted a latent or hidden danger.

Further, the undisputed material facts were that plaintiff made no attempt to turn on any lights when she entered the “completely black” cabin, that plaintiff never asked to have lights turned on when she entered the cabin, and that lights were available and could have been turned on, but simply were not. 

Against this backdrop, the Smith court found that plaintiff’s failure to turn on any lights, coupled with her willingness to step into an unfamiliar area, was such a radical departure from reasonable conduct under the circumstances that defendants could not have reasonably foreseen that conduct and its consequences. Accordingly, the trial court’s summary judgment was affirmed because the defendants had negated an essential element of plaintiff’s claim by showing no duty was owed under the circumstances. 

What most people don’t know is that the homeowners in Eaton (the McLains) were so upset by injured suffered by their guest that they not only vowed to make their home safer but actually provided the inspiration for this song by the great Trace Adkins:

Every Light in the House

I told you I’d leave a light on
In case you ever wanted to come back home
You smiled and said you appreciate the gesture
I took your every word to heart
‘Cause I can’t stand us being apart
And just to show how much I really miss ya

Every light in the house is on
The backyard’s bright as the crack of dawn
The front walk looks like runway lights
It’s kinda like noon in the dead of night
Every light in the house is on
Just in case you ever do get tired of being gone
Every light in the house is on

If I should ever start forgetting
I’ll turn the lights off one by one
So you can see that I agree it’s over
But until then I want you to know
If you look south, you’ll see a glow
That’s me waiting at home each night to hold ya

Every light in the house is on
The backyard’s bright as the crack of dawn
The front walk looks like runway lights
It’s kinda like noon in the dead of night
Every light in the house is on
Just in case you ever do get tired of being gone
Every light in the house is on

Watch the video to Every Light in the House

Who says tort law doesn’t have a positive effect on our world?