Three-Inch Step From Store to Sidewalk Not a Dangerous Condition

In Mooney v. Genuine Parts Co. d/b/a National Automotive Association, Inc., No., W2015-02080-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. May 11, 2016), the Tennessee Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment for defendant retail store in a premises liability action.

Plaintiff had entered the automotive parts store to apply for a job. After being told the position was filled, she left through the same door she had previously entered and fell. Plaintiff filed a premises liability suit, claiming that the doorway constituted a dangerous condition. Plaintiff alleged that the concrete outside the store was 3.5 inches below the interior floor, that the drop-off is what caused her fall, and that the dangerous condition “could have been remedied by a ramp, contrasting floor material or paint, handrails, or warning signs.”

Defendant moved for summary judgment, claiming they “had no duty to warn [plaintiff] of the three-and-on-half-inch step-down at the doorway because it was not foreseeable that anyone would fall because of it.” In support of its motion, defendant pointed to evidence that no one had ever fallen during the 26 years the store manager had worked there, that plaintiff herself had traversed the doorway just a few minutes earlier, and that plaintiff had admitted that “she was not looking down at the step when she exited the door and fell.” In replying to this motion, plaintiff relied on her own deposition testimony, the store manager’s testimony that he had stumbled before going out the door, and a former employee’s testimony that he could see where the decline could cause someone to fall. The trial court granted defendant’s motion for summary judgment, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

On appeal, the Court likened this case to past Tennessee cases finding that common features in parking lots and sidewalks are typically found to not be dangerous conditions. The Court quoted extensively from Steele v. Primehealth Med. Ctr., P.C., No. W2015-00056-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Dec. 22, 2015), a case affirming summary judgment where plaintiff fell on a sidewalk that had a step down to a wheelchair ramp. The Court noted that the Steele opinion “discussed several premises liability cases involving steps or drop-offs and motions for summary judgment.”

Turning back to the instant matter, the Court reviewed the evidence relied upon by plaintiff. The Court specifically noted that although plaintiff claimed to have not noticed the drop-off, she also admitted she was not looking down, and that she had gone through the doorway without incident just a few minutes before falling. As to the manager’s alleged admission that he had stumbled exiting the store, the Court pointed out that he testified that “he stumbled because he had something in his hands, was looking at something else, or tripped over his own feet.” The Court stated that “there are circumstances in which stairs or steps may constitute dangerous conditions that give rise to a duty to warn[,]” but that “because steps are not inherently dangerous, a plaintiff cannot establish a defective or dangerous condition merely be alleging that he or she tripped or fell on a step or set of stairs, without further proof.” (internal citations and quotations omitted).

Ultimately, the Court here affirmed summary judgment. The Court found:

The record before us simply contains insufficient evidence to allow a jury to reasonably find that the three-and-one-half-inch step at NAPA was unreasonably dangerous or defective. The proof does not reasonably lead to the conclusion that the step-down was dangerous in the sense that it was reasonably foreseeable to Defendants that it would probably cause harm or injury. No one had fallen because of the step-down in the past 26 years… A condition is dangerous only if it is reasonably foreseeable that the condition could probably cause harm or injury and that a reasonably prudent property owner would not maintain the premises in such a state.

(Internal citation and quotation omitted). Here, the Court held that the “facts demonstrate that an unfortunate accident occurred, [but] they do not demonstrate that a dangerous or defective condition existed on Defendants’ premises such that they had a duty to remove or repair the condition or warn [plaintiff] of its existence.”

Considering both this case and the Steele case, plaintiffs in Tennessee face a difficult task of proving premises liability in sidewalk cases, especially if the alleged dangerous condition is a relatively small step down. In both cases there had been no other injuries due to the allegedly dangerous step, and in both defendant was granted summary judgment based on plaintiffs’ inability to prove duty based on the existence of a dangerous condition. When evaluating these types of premises liability cases, plaintiffs’ lawyers need to critically analyze the likelihood of getting past summary judgment. Though neither of these cases indicate what kind of evidence would have gotten plaintiff past the summary judgment stage, it seems that a showing of prior injuries or problems and/or expert testimony regarding the safety of the design or possible code violations could be helpful.