Property Owner Not Liable Where Another Entity Operated Clinic

In Choate ex rel. Clayton v. Vanderbilt Univ., No. M2014-00630-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 25, 2016), the Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment for a property owner when a patient was injured while attempting to get on a scale at a dialysis clinic.

Plaintiff was the decedent patient’s former spouse and brought the action on behalf of the patient’s minor child. Patient was suffering from end-stage renal disease and receiving dialysis treatments three times each week. His treatments were at the Vanderbilt Dialysis Clinic, but although Vanderbilt University owned the building and property, the clinic was operated by Bio-Medical Applications of Tennessee, Inc. Patient had been going to this clinic for several years.

When patient arrived on the day at issue, he arrived in a wheelchair and a Bio-Medical employee assisted him with his admission. Patients are weighed before dialysis can begin, but patient asked to go to the restroom first. A Bio-Medical employee wheeled patient to the restroom and told him to use the call string inside to let her know when he was finished. After not hearing from the patient for ten minutes, the employee checked on the patient and again reiterated that he should use the call string when finished. When the patient finished using the restroom, he left the area and asked the facility secretary to show him into the treatment area. She took him to an isolation room and instructed him to wait there for his patient care technician to come get him. Patient disregarded these instructions and left the room alone.

        The scale at the clinic was “less than four inches tall and less than six feet long, with a ramp on one end.” Bio-Medical employees told all patients in wheelchairs that they had to be helped onto and off of the scale. After leaving his room, patient attempted to get onto the scale himself, and in the process tipped his chair over, causing blunt force trauma to his head. After his fall, a Vanderbilt nurse practitioner as well as several Bio-Medical employees tended to patient, and his patient care technician told him, “You were supposed to wait on me,” to which he replied, “Yes, I know.” After being transferred for medical treatment, he died thirteen days later.

Plaintiff filed suit against both Bio-Medical and Vanderbilt on behalf of patient’s minor son alleging negligence, negligence per se, premises liability, and loss of consortium. She later amended her complaint to assert medical malpractice claims against Bio-Medical. Vanderbilt filed a motion for summary judgment, and the trial court granted it as to all claims against Vanderbilt. Plaintiff appealed the finding that Vanderbilt was not liable based on the various negligence claims asserted, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

In analyzing this case, the Court held that “Vanderbilt had no duty of care relating to the acts occurring when [patient] was injured.” The Court found that the undisputed facts showed that “employees of Bio-Medical, who were not under the direction of Vanderbilt, were responsible for [patient’s] admission to the Clinic and for weighing [patient] prior to his dialysis treatment.” The Court pointed out that the evidence showed no agency relationship between Vanderbilt and Bio-Medical, that Vanderbilt employees had nothing to do with admitting and weighing patients, and that the only Vanderbilt employee who saw patient at this clinic was the nurse practitioner who saw him after the injury had already occurred.\

As to premises liability, the Court acknowledged that “Vanderbilt did have a duty relating to the premises where [patient’s] injury occurred,” but noted that “when the owner has parted with control of the premises to some degree, the owner’s duty liability depends on the degree of control the owner had or has over the defective or dangerous condition causing the injury.” (internal citation omitted). Here, the Court found that “Vanderbilt had no control over the area in which [patient] was injured,” and that plaintiff had offered no evidence to suggest that a dangerous condition existed when Vanderbilt passed control of the property to Bio-Medical. The Court further found that Vanderbilt had no duty with respect to the scale, as there was “no proof that Vanderbilt operated or maintained the scale…and there is no allegation that the scale is a fixture of the premises.”

In addition to the liability findings, plaintiff also appealed the trial court’s holding that the Dead Man’s statute did not apply in the case, thus allowing witnesses to testify regarding the patient’s statement after his fall. The Court affirmed the ruling, though, noting that the Dead Man’s statute only comes into play when the estate has an interest in the outcome of the litigation, and that the present action was a wrongful death claim benefitting the patient’s minor son.

In this case, plaintiff simply didn’t have the necessary evidence to establish the property owner, Vanderbilt’s, liability. Vanderbilt was able to show that another entity operated and controlled the premises, and plaintiff apparently offered nothing to rebut that showing. While it is often a good idea to name the property owner as a defendant, a plaintiff must have some evidence to establish said property owner’s liability.