Summary Judgment Ruling Trips Up Plaintiff’s Elevator Case

In Dennis v. Donelson Corp. Centre I, LP, No. M2015-01878-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. May 13, 2016), the Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment in a negligence case revolving around injuries plaintiff sustained when exiting an elevator. On appeal, the only relevant defendant was the elevator maintenance company, who provided maintenance to the elevator in question pursuant to a contract with the building owner.

According to plaintiff, she was riding the elevator and, when it stopped, it “did not stop level with the floor.” Plaintiff claimed that the uneven step caused her to fall while exiting the elevator, “resulting in injuries to her knee, ankle and leg.” Maintenance logs stated that the employee of defendant who was assigned to this building had completed routine maintenance on the elevator just two days before, finding no issues, and that no issues had been found on the elevator during the year preceding the accident. After the fall but on the same day, defendant’s employee and a state inspector went to the building to inspect the elevator. “During their inspection, they were unable to recreate the scenario where the elevator stopped three or four inches below the floor.” Defendant’s employee did find that the elevator had a leaking valve, which was replaced, but that was unrelated to the alleged issue that caused the fall.

After discovery, defendant maintenance company moved for summary judgment, which the trial court granted. Plaintiff appealed on two bases: 1) “that a reasonable juror could have concluded that [defendant] was negligent under the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur,” and 2) that plaintiff had “presented evidence creating a genuine issue of material fact as to a witness’s credibility.”

When analyzing plaintiff’s first argument, the Court pointed out that

plaintiffs intending to rely on [res ipsa loquitur] must establish three things. First, the plaintiff must identify how the injury occurred. Second, the plaintiff must demonstrate that the event causing the injury is a kind which does not ordinarily occur in the absence of negligence. Third, the plaintiff must demonstrate that he or she was injured by an instrumentality that was within the defendant’s exclusive control.

(internal citations omitted). While the Court determined that plaintiff had satisfied the first element, it held that plaintiff had not satisfied the second element. The Court stated that plaintiff had “not demonstrated that tripping and falling while exiting an elevator is an event that does not ordinarily happen in the absence of negligence.” The Court held: “We conclude that it is certainly possible for a person to trip and fall while exiting an elevator, even if the elevator levels perfectly with the floor, and the [plaintiff] did not present any evidence to the contrary at summary judgment.” Accordingly, the Court affirmed the trial court’s ruling that res ipsa loquitur did not apply here.

Next, the Court looked at plaintiff’s argument that there was a question of fact as to the defendant employee’s credibility. Plaintiff argued that during his deposition, the employee could not specifically remember whether he serviced the elevator two days before the incident or a month before, and that this showed “a question concerning his credibility.” According to plaintiff, “because [employee’s] credibility is suspect, he likely concealed defects with the elevator.” While the Court acknowledged that questions of credibility could potentially warrant the denial of summary judgment, it pointed out that “the credibility concerns that warrant denying a summary judgment must rise to a level higher than normal credibility questions that arise whenever a witness testifies.” (internal citation omitted). Here, the alleged credibility issue was simply not important enough to affect the summary judgment ruling. The Court specifically noted that the present case did “not hinge on any observation or individual’s state of mind,” that there were no witnesses who allegedly saw the elevator malfunction before the injury, and that the state inspector could also not find anything wrong with the elevator’s leveling function. The Court held that plaintiff’s “challenge to [employee’s] credibility does not go to the heart of the matter. Whether the elevator was serviced a month before or two days before is not a material fact in this case.” Accordingly, summary judgment was affirmed.

This is a case of a plaintiff who was legitimately injured but had no real evidence. As we have seen many times before, an injury does not automatically result in a winnable negligence case. Here, there were no witnesses or other evidence (other than plaintiff’s testimony) regarding the alleged elevator malfunction, the elevator had recently been inspected, and the malfunction could not be duplicated. Plaintiff simply did not have any evidence regarding the defendant maintenance company that could survive summary judgment.