Memphis Premises Liability Case Fails

In the recent premises liability opinion of Wolfe v. Felts, Jr. No. W2013-01995-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. May 29, 2014), the court of appeals affirmed a trial court’s decision to grant directed verdict in favor of defendants in a case where plaintiff fell on ice that had formed in front of defendants’ building after the building’s sprinkler system had activated during freezing temperatures.

The plaintiff in Wolfe did not argue, as is customary in most premises cases, that defendants had actual or constructive knowledge of the dangerous condition (the sprinkler system operating in freezing temperatures). Instead, plaintiff argued that defendants had created the dangerous condition by negligently failing to properly manage the sprinkler system. Tennessee law holds that a plaintiff is not required to prove that a premises owner had prior notice of a dangerous condition if the premises owner created the condition that caused plaintiff’s injury.

However, according to the appellate court, plaintiff’s case failed because there was no evidence as to what constituted proper sprinkler management or maintenance so as to establish that improper sprinkler management or maintenance had caused the sprinkler to malfunction.

Defendants were the building owners and also the tenants occupying the property as a hair salon. Defendant building owner testified that he knew the sprinkler system needed “winterization” but he did not know what winterization entailed. Defendant tenant testified that he had never used the sprinkler system during his tenancy, that he was never notified that the sprinkler system required winterization, and that he did not know what was required to winterize the sprinkler system. Plaintiff did not submit any other proof about proper sprinkler management or maintenance. Therefore based on the lack of evidence from defendants about the requirements of winterization, the appellate court found that the jury would have been impermissibly forced to speculate as to what actions defendants should have taken to winterize the sprinkler system.

Furthermore, there was a dispute as to what actually caused the sprinkler to activate on the day of plaintiff’s injury. The undisputed proof showed that the sprinkler system’s control valve was in the “open” rather than “closed” position. Plaintiff argued, without affirmative evidence, that there was a malfunction in the sprinkler system that caused it to turn on. The appellate court found, however, that in light of defendant tenant’s testimony that he did not ever use the sprinkler system, it was just as possible that the sprinkler could have been turned on by an unknown third party on the day of the incident. As such, the jury would again be forced to impermissibly speculate to conclude that defendants somehow caused or created the dangerous condition.  

Thus, the Wolfe court affirmed the directed verdict in favor of defendants. In its conclusion the opinion states that under current Tennessee law a plaintiff must navigate a “stringent framework” to prevail in a premises liability action.

One last point.  The record sent to the Court of Appeals appears to have been very incomplete.  No transcript was sent.  No testimony from the Plaintiff went up. 

If a case is worthy of an appeal, on whether a directed verdict should have been granted,  it makes sense to spend the money on a transcript of the evidence.