Premises Case Rejected on Summary Judgment

In Fuller v. Banks, No. W2015-01001-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 3, 2016), plaintiff filed a premises liability action based on a fall she sustained when the railing on the stairs at her rental home gave way. Plaintiff had been leasing the premises for almost a year, and the stairs were located outside her front door. Anytime plaintiff went outside the front of her home, she used these stairs and rail. She had used the stairs multiple times a day for the 11 months she had lived there, and even used the stairs at least two times on the day of the fall. Plaintiff had never noticed or reported a problem with the stairs to defendant landlord.

According to plaintiff, after she fell “she noticed loose bricks lying on the ground around her,” which she claimed were part of the railing’s foundation. After the fall, defendant sent a licensed contractor to repair the railing, and this contractor testified that he “did not find any loose bricks,” that “he made no repairs to the brick foundation,” and that there were no signs of rotting. Upon inspection, the contractor saw markings that made him believe the post supporting the railing had been hit by a vehicle.

The trial court granted summary judgment to defendant, finding that plaintiff’s “evidence is insufficient to establish an essential element of [her] claim, that being that [she] suffered an injury resulting from an unsafe or dangerous condition of the leased premises that was in existence at the date of the lease.” The trial court found that defendant had successfully negated proof that a defect was present when the lease was executed, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

On appeal, plaintiff first argued that the trial court made insufficient findings to support its grant of summary judgment, but the Court rejected this argument. The Court noted that Rule 56.04 of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure “requires that a trial court must ‘state the legal grounds upon which the court denies or grants the motion’ for summary judgment,” but “does not require that a trial court enter findings of fact in its order.” Here, the Court found that “the trial court’s order clearly states the legal grounds upon which it granted summary judgment, including its determinations that there is no dispute of material fact and that [plaintiff’s] evidence is insufficient to establish negligence on the part of [defendant].”

Plaintiff also asserted that summary judgment was inappropriate in this case, arguing that she had at least created a genuine issue of material fact. Tennessee law provides that “generally, a landlord is not liable to a tenant or a third party for harm caused by a dangerous condition on the leased premises.” (internal citation omitted). An exception to this general rule applies when the facts show “(1) the dangerous condition was in existence at the time the lease was executed; (2) the landlord knew or should have known of the dangerous condition; and (3) the tenant did not know of the condition and could not have learned about it through the exercise of reasonable care.”

Defendants argued that “the consistent use of the stairs for some eleven months after [the parties] entered into their lease negates a finding that there was some defect in existence at the time the lease was executed.” In addition, defendants pointed out that plaintiff had used the steps on the very day she fell, asserting that she at least had “co-extensive knowledge” of any dangerous condition existing in the pole, rail or steps. Plaintiff, on the other hand, pointed to her own testimony that “the pole and railing had remained unchanged since she moved into the premises” and that she saw loose bricks after she fell, relying on those facts to infer that “the pole’s foundation must have been defective the entire time she rented the premises.” In regards to the contractor’s testimony that there were no loose bricks around the pole and/or railing, plaintiff argued that this created a genuine issue of material fact making summary judgment inappropriate.

The Court, however, stated that “[e]ven if we concede that there is a dispute of fact concerning whether any foundation bricks were displaced after the fall, not all factual disputes warrant denying a motion for summary judgment.” The Court found that there was no evidence that there was a defect in the rail or steps prior to the accident, that plaintiff had never complained about any defect, and that none of defendants’ inspections had revealed any structural problems. The Court held that “the record is devoid of any proof that the stairs were defective at the time the lease was executed. The existence of loose bricks after the accident only evinces the condition of the foundation at that time, but not at any time prior.” Finding that the plaintiff here did no more than “simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts,” (internal citation omitted), the Court affirmed summary judgment for defendants.

This case really came down to the facts that plaintiff had used the steps multiple times a day for 11 months, never complaining of and admittedly never noticing a problem, and had even used the steps on the day in question prior to the fall. To pin a landlord with liability in such a situation, plaintiff needed to produce far more than uncorroborated testimony about seeing some loose bricks, which she simply failed to do.