No Causation Found For Plaintiff Injured by Dorm Fire Alarm

In Crutchfield v. State, No. M2015-01199-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. April 18, 2016), plaintiff sued the State for alleged negligence regarding a fire alarm in her college dorm room at Tennessee Technological University (TTU), a state university. While the claims commission found for plaintiff and awarded her damages, the Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the plaintiff failed to prove proximate cause.

Plaintiff was hearing-impaired, with hearing loss of around 50% in her right hear and 75% in her left ear. When she started school at TTU her freshman year, she requested permission to live off campus but was denied. Instead, TTU worked with plaintiff to install a supplemental alarm system in her dorm room. To accommodate plaintiff, TTU gave her a single room in a dormitory and installed a SilentCall supplemental alarm system therein, which consisted of a strobe light and bed shaker that could be triggered either by a smoke detector or when a doorbell outside her room was pushed. If smoke were detected, a high pitch alarm that was mounted on the wall above her bed would sound as well. In addition to this supplemental alarm system, plaintiff’s room was also equipped with the standard alarm that all rooms had, which consisted of a speaker above her door. This alarm was the same in every room and would sound for fires or fire drills.

One morning while plaintiff was sleeping, she woke up to a high-pitch alarm and went outside. While she initially believed it was the supplemental alarm above her bed, it was later determined to be the standard alarm above her door that was sounding. Based on the time the alarm began and when plaintiff testified to have woken up, plaintiff slept through the alarm for around fifteen minutes before being awoken. After this incident, plaintiff experienced increased difficulty with her hearing, and a doctor diagnosed her with a noise-induced type injury that significantly reduced her hearing, leaving her essentially deaf without hearing aids.

Plaintiff sued the State for negligence, alleging that “the special fire alarm system that was installed in her room was not installed or maintained properly, and that as a result, extremely high decibel values were emitted and caused permanent and disabling damage to her hearing.” Plaintiff further asserted that “TTU failed to follow protocol of assisting disabled residents during an emergency actual or perceived, which resulted in her exposure to the excessively loud noise for more than fifteen minutes before she removed herself from the building.”

The claims commission held a trial in this matter, where a university administrator testified about the alarm system. He explained that all dorm rooms were equipped with this alarm, that the volume on the alarm was pre-set before it was received/installed, and that the volume was set according to codes promulgated by the National Fire Protection Association. Evidence at trial showed that the alarm went off in the entire dormitory in this case spontaneously for no reason after not being reset correctly after a fire drill. At trial, plaintiff’s doctor testified that plaintiff, due to her prior hearing loss, would be “slightly more susceptible to noise,” but that such increased susceptibility would be “offset by the fact that he hearing loss has a somewhat protective effect against the noise damage [b]ecause the noise has to be louder to actually affect the nerves.” When the doctor was asked whether a person could sleep through a sound loud enough to damage their hearing, he answered that “it’s not likely.” Additional evidence at trial showed that at the time of the incident, plaintiff had unplugged her supplemental alarm, such that it could not be activated by a person pressing the doorbell outside her room.

The claims commission found for plaintiff, making several findings of fact and conclusions of law. Regarding whether plaintiff had showed that TTU breached its duty to plaintiff, the commission found that “TTU should have connected the school’s fire alarm system to the SilentCall system that was installed in [plaintiff’s] room,” and that “TTU should have planned for someone to physically notify [plaintiff] and escort her out of the building once the fire alarm was activated.” As to causation, the commission ruled that “[i]t should have been reasonably foreseeable that extended exposure to 75 decibels could have caused hearing damage,” and that “the fire alarm should not have been activated because there was no fire or drill.” Despite ruling for plaintiff, the commission did attribute 30% of the fault to plaintiff, finding that she should have taken “steps to protect her hearing,” including keeping the supplemental alarm plugged in, putting the school on notice of her sensitivity to noise, and wearing ear protection.

On appeal, the Court of Appeals overturned the commission’s decision. While there was no question that TTU owed a duty to plaintiff, the Court determined that plaintiff had not proven proximate cause. In Tennessee, a plaintiff must show that the harm was “foreseeable from the vantage point available to the defendant at the time the allegedly negligent conduct occurred.” (internal citation and quotation omitted). Based on the facts of this case, the Court held that “the evidence preponderates against the commissioner’s finding that TTU should have known that subjecting [plaintiff] to an alarm at 75 decibels would cause her to suffer additional hearing loss or any other type of injury.” The Court reasoned:

The evidence was undisputed that TTU was in compliance with the National Fire Protection Association’s codes regarding fire alarms and that the decibel level of the alarm…was pre-set and could not be altered by TTU. [Plaintiff] did not introduce any evidence that she informed TTU that she was particularly susceptible to loud noises or that TTU knew, or reasonably should have known, that a hearing-impaired individual was more susceptible than a non-hearing impaired individual to an alarm sounding at 75 decibels. As the State argues, TTU installed the SilentCall system to protect [plaintiff] in the event of a fire, because her hearing impairment would prevent her from hearing the alarm sounding. It does not logically follow that she would be injured by hearing the dormitory alarm.

While the Court specifically noted that they were not disputing the commissioner’s finding that the incident worsened plaintiff’s hearing, it ultimately held that plaintiff had not met her burden of proving negligence on TTU’s part in the maintenance of the alarm.

With the claims commission and the Court of Appeals reaching opposite rulings, these facts clearly presented a difficult case. A young girl who was already hearing impaired lost what remained of her ability to hear because of an alarm that sounded in her dorm room. The problem for plaintiff, though, was proving foreseeability. Here, TTU had worked to accommodate plaintiff’s disability and was not informed that she was particularly susceptible to loud noises. The State argued that it had accommodated all the disabilities that it knew about. Moreover, as the Court pointed out, an additional alarm was installed in plaintiff’s room because TTU was told she would not hear the standard alarm…plaintiff’s counsel had a difficult argument to make to then assert that the standard alarm was too loud for plaintiff. While this decision resulted in a young girl, clearly injured, with no one to hold accountable, it is likely a correct analysis of a close case regarding proximate cause.