Poor Lighting Leads to Reversal of Summary Judgment for Defendant in Tennessee Fall Down Case

Knowledge of inadequate lighting was enough to create a jury issue of dangerous condition in  Christian v. Ayers L.P. d/b/a Ms. Lassie’s Lodge, No. E2013-00401-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. March 28, 2014), according to the Eastern Section of the Tennessee Court of Appeals.

Plaintiff attended an event for “Relay for Life” sponsored by the American Cancer Society at defendant owned Ms. Lassie’s Lodge. When plaintiff left the event between 6:30 and 7:00 p.m., it was dark outside. Plaintiff testified that she had trouble seeing the ground and walked slowly with extra caution to her car in the parking area adjacent to the lodge. There was no lighting on the walkway or in the parking area. Plaintiff fell mid-stride after her left foot went down further than her right foot near the edge of the walkway. She suffered a four-part humerus fracture and incurred $52,000 in medical expenses after hospitalization and surgery.

Owner’s representative and partner testified that she had opened and closed the lodge that evening. Upon arriving, owner’s representative flipped “some switches” and became aware that the lights on the walkway and in the parking lot were not on, causing her to look unsuccessfully for the switch for the outside lights. She was then told that there was no switch and the lights should come on automatically. It was later determined by workers after plaintiff’s fall that multiple exterior bulbs, including the lights in question, were burned out.

The trial court reviewed defendant’s summary judgment motion under Tenn. Code Ann. § 20-6-101 (Tennessee’s statutory summary judgment standard effective July 2011) and found that plaintiff had not presented sufficient evidence regarding defendant’s notice of the alleged dangerous condition.

In a Tennessee premises liability case, the plaintiff must prove, in addition to the elements of negligence, that the defendant premises owner (or its agent) caused or created the dangerous or defective condition at issue, or that the defendant premises owner (or its agent) had actual or constructive knowledge of the dangerous or defective condition prior to the incident giving rise to the plaintiff’s injuries.  The premises owner has a duty to exercise reasonable care under all the circumstances to prevent injury to persons lawfully on the premises.

This duty is premised upon the assumption that the owner has superior knowledge of any perilous conditions that may exists on the property. Tennessee legal precedent concerning a premises owner’s duty specifically includes the provision of adequate lighting. By showing actual knowledge of the lack of adequate lighting, a plaintiff demonstrates that the property owner had a duty to act reasonably under the circumstances and remedy the dangerous condition.

Therefore, based on the defendant representative’s admission to having knowledge that the lights in question were inoperative at the time of plaintiff’s fall, the court of appeals reversed the trial court’s dismissal of plaintiff’s claim. The appellate court ruled that the jury should decide whether owner, having knowledge of the lack of outdoor light, took sufficient action or whether failure to take further action was reasonable under the circumstances. The jury should also consider, according to the appellate court, whether owner could or should have become more aware of the dangerous condition through the exercise of reasonable care, such as inspecting and testing the outdoor lighting and recognizing that the lack of lighting in the parking lot.

No doubt that this was the right decision by the court of appeals. Summary judgment should not have been granted in this case.  

The case is a helpful reminder that common law has defined some specific obligations that much be met to meet that duty of reasonable care.  One of those obligations is the duty to have adequate lighting.  Those common law obligations are in essence court declarations of the standard of care for owners and operators of premises, and evidence of a breach of those obligations puts one on the path to a trial by jury.