Judge Must Give Basis for Summary Judgment Decision

A recent Tennessee  premises liability case reiterated that a trial court cannot grant summary judgment “without making findings of fact or stating the legal basis for its decision.” In McEarl v. City of Brownsville, No. W2015-00077-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Nov. 6, 2015), plaintiff alleged that while walking from a private home to a public parking area maintained by the city, he was injured when he “stepped into a leaf-filled gutter running between the yard and the parking area.” The city moved for summary judgment, which the trial court granted. After asking both parties questions at the hearing, the trial judge stated: “I don’t think—I don’t think the City is responsible here. I’m granting [the defendant’s] motion.” The trial judge instructed defendant to prepare an order, and the order eventually entered contained several findings of fact regarding lack of duty and foreseeability.

On appeal, the Court vacated the order granting summary judgment due to the trial court’s failure to make findings of fact and state a legal basis for its decision before asking the defendant to submit a proposed order. The Court relied on Smith v. UHS v. Lakeside, Inc., 439 S.W.3d 303 (Tenn. 2014), where the Tennessee Supreme Court “made clear that Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 56.04’s directive that ‘the trial court shall state the legal grounds upon which the court denies or grants the motion which shall be included in the order reflecting the court’s ruling’ is mandatory.” In Smith, “the court concluded that Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56.04 requires the trial court, upon granting or denying a motion for summary judgment, to state the grounds for its decision before it invites or requests the prevailing party to draft a proposed order.”

Here, the trial court “provided no factual findings or legal grounds for its decision[.]” The Court of Appeals noted that it was “essentially asked to conduct an archaeological dig into the transcript…in order to determine what the court’s comments and questions indicate about its state of mind during the proceeding.” Finding that it had “no ability to know what the court’s actual grounds were when it made its oral ruling,” the Court of Appeals vacated the order and remanded the case.

This case, along with a very similar overturning of summary judgment that came out in October 2014, is important for trial lawyers to note. Based on the standard now applied by the Court of Appeals, a grant of summary judgment that is not supported by facts or legal reasoning on the record will likely be vacated on appeal.