No Evidence of Constructive Notice Leads to Summary Judgment in Tennessee Premises Liability Case

In Hannah v. Sherwood Forest Rentals, LLC, No. E2014-00082-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Nov. 17, 2014), plaintiff filed a premises liability action against a cabin rental company and the cabin owners. Plaintiff, a guest at the cabin, alleged that she arrived at a rental cabin after dark, ascended the stairs to the front door, then later descended the same stairs to retrieve her luggage. On her way down the stairs, plaintiff fell and injured both feet and ankles when, according to plaintiff, “the bottom fell out” of one of the stairs. The next day, plaintiff and her family found that several stairs had “improperly seated nails fastening the top of the step” and that one of the stairs rocked forward when stepped on in a particular spot.

Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, which the trial court granted on the basis that there was no genuine issue of material fact by which a reasonable jury could find that defendants had actual or constructive notice of any alleged dangerous condition. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Defendants presented evidence that there had been no prior or subsequent reports of problems with the stairs; that the maintenance staff inspected the cabin at least monthly and had not seen a problem; that the housekeeping staff cleaned the cabin prior to plaintiff’s family checking in and did not see a problem with the stairs; and that the owners had not seen any problem with the stairs or received any report of such a problem during their frequent visits to the cabin.

Both courts determined that the evidence presented by defendants demonstrated that plaintiff could not prove actual or constructive notice of any allegedly dangerous condition. The Court of Appeals cited the basic tenets of premises liability law, noting that plaintiff did not show that defendants created the condition and therefore would have to prove that defendants had actual or constructive notice of the danger prior to plaintiff’s injury. Since no actual notice was shown from prior incidents or complaints, the Court noted that plaintiff “would be required to prove constructive notice by establishing that the condition existed for such a length of time or was of such a nature that [defendants], in the exercise of reasonable care, should have become aware of it.” In finding that plaintiff failed to meet that burden, the Court of Appeals relied not only on the evidence presented by defendant, but also on the fact that plaintiff’s own family had been in the cabin for 24 hours before her arrival and had not had a problem with the stairs.

This fairly simple premises liability case is a great reminder of the kind of evidence an attorney needs to be mindful of when assessing and filing such a claim. In the absence of proof that a defendant caused or actually knew about the dangerous condition, evidence regarding things like prior incidents, prior reports, and the frequency with which the area was inspected will be crucial to the success of a claim.