Evidence of Injury Not Enough to Prove Fall-Down Case

In Newcomb v. State, No. M2014-00804-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. June 26, 2015), the Court of Appeals affirmed the Tennessee Claims Commission’s dismissal of a plaintiff’s premises liability action. Plaintiff fell down a flight of stairs in front of a state owned building. It was raining on the day of the injury, and plaintiff asserted that she reached out for the handrail but that it was out of reach. She argued that the handrail started one stair down from the top and that the steps had no nonskid material, both of which made the stairway unsafe.

At the Claims Commission hearing, the State called two witnesses who worked in facility administration at the building to testify. Both witnesses stated that the steps were the main entrance to the building which was used frequently, that any problems with the steps would have been “quickly noticed and corrected,” and that there had been no prior incidents on the steps. Based on this evidence, the Claims Commissioner dismissed plaintiff’s case, concluding that she “failed to prove that the steps and handrail were a dangerous condition or that, assuming they were dangerous, the State knew or should have known that they constituted a dangerous condition.” The Court of Appeals affirmed.

The Court noted that “a condition is dangerous only if it is reasonably foreseeable that the condition could probably cause harm or injury and that a reasonably prudent property owner would not maintain the premises in such a state.” (internal quotations and citation omitted). Here, the evidence supported the conclusion that no dangerous condition existed because there was no showing that the steps or handrail were “broken or structurally unsound,” no evidence that a foreign object was on the steps causing the fall, and “no evidence that it was unreasonable or even unusual to maintain steps like these in this condition.” In fact, there was actually evidence that the steps were used frequently and had never caused an injury before. Thus, “they were not a dangerous condition that the State had a duty to correct or warn against.”

Further, even if the steps were dangerous, the State had no notice. The evidence introduced showed no reason that the State would have needed to investigate the steps, as no prior incidents had occurred.

In support of her claim, plaintiff attempted to introduce photographs purporting to show changes made to the stairs and handrail after her fall. The Claims Commission correctly held these photographs to be inadmissible, though, as Tennessee Rule of Evidence 407 bars admission of evidence regarding subsequent remedial measures to prove the existence of a dangerous condition.

While this is a very basic premises liability case, it is a good reminder of one important thing—evidence of a fall and injury alone is not enough to succeed on a premises liability claim. A plaintiff must say more than “I fell so the condition must be dangerous.” Instead, evidence regarding why the condition was dangerous and how the defendant had notice of the condition must be developed to avoid dismissal in such a case.