Articles Posted in Premises Liability

Not every fall results in a successful premises liability case, as the plaintiffs in a recent Tennessee Court of Appeals case were reminded.

In Woodgett v. Vaughan, No. M2016-00250-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Dec. 13, 2016), plaintiff filed suit after falling while she was viewing defendants’ home, which was listed for sale. Plaintiff’s husband was a realtor, so he contacted the listing agent about viewing defendants’ home. Defendants had already moved out and removed all of their belongings, so plaintiff and her husband were allowed to view the home on their own. In the upstairs bonus room there was a door that led to the attic access. The landing that accessed the attic was raised, so defendants had hired someone to build a wooden box to use as a step to get to the landing. The step was made with two-by-twelves, measured 9.5 inches high, 39 inches wide and 10.75 inches deep, and was covered with carpet. The step could be moved out of the way and was not affixed to the landing, as it was sometimes moved to accommodate furniture passing through the area. Defendants had “used the step for twenty years without incident.” According to plaintiff, when she used the step while viewing the home, it “gave way” and made her fall.

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Citing the Rule of Sevens, the Court of Appeals recently affirmed a finding that a 13-year-old was solely responsible for his injury when he fell on the bleachers at his school.

In Crockett v. Sumner County Board of Educ., No. M2015-02227-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Nov. 30, 2016), injured plaintiff and his parents sued his school after he fell on bleachers in the gym. Plaintiff was attending summer school, and the day before his injury someone had intentionally caused flooding in a boys’ bathroom. Because no one would confess, two coaches had all of the eighth grade boys help clean the bathroom and pick up trash from the bleachers. According to plaintiff, he mopped the bathroom and then was told to begin helping in the bleachers, though the coach supervising the work testified that plaintiff was not told to work in the bleachers after mopping.

At the time of his injury, plaintiff was using the bleacher seats as stairs, rather than using the designated stairway on the bleachers. Plaintiff stated that the coach had left the gym when he fell, but the coach testified that he had left for a couple of minutes to retrieve a dry mop and had returned to the gym by the time of plaintiff’s accident.

During a bench trial, plaintiff testified that “he knew from the time he was a little kid that he was not supposed to use the bleacher seats as steps,” and that such usage could cause injury. He further testified that he “just wasn’t thinking about it” at the time of the accident. Two coaches from his school testified that they had told the students on many occasions not to use the seats as steps but to instead use the designated steps, which had non-slip material on them.

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In Miller v. Jackson-Madison County General Hospital District, No. W2016-01170-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Dec. 8, 2016), the Tennessee Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment in a slip and fall case based on a lack of proof of notice of the dangerous condition.

Plaintiff was visiting her brother at defendant hospital when she left his room to find a nurse. In the hallway, she allegedly slipped and fell in water and injured herself, which was the basis for this premises liability suit. According to plaintiff’s trial testimony, she did not see anything on the floor before she fell, but after her fall she noticed a “trail of water [that] led to a food cart against the wall in the hallway.” Plaintiff did not inspect the cart, and she “did not know whether the water was leaking from the food cart or had been spilled near it.” She also did not know how long the water had been there or whether any hospital employees knew about the water.

After a bench trial, the trial court “found the evidence insufficient to demonstrate that the Hospital or its employees caused or had actual or constructive notice of the water on the floor prior to [plaintiff’s] fall,” and thus entered judgment for defendant. The Court of Appeals affirmed this decision.

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In Matherne v. West, No. E2015-02061-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 28, 2016), the Tennessee Court of Appeals overturned summary judgment in a premises liability case notwithstanding a claimed “open and obvious” danger.

Plaintiff’s family was renting a cabin in the mountains from defendants. The pictures online showed that the cabin had two parking spaces, one being elevated several feet along a slope from the other. A safety rail went around a portion of the upper parking space but did not cover the entire drop-off area. On plaintiff’s second day at the cabin, she was stepping out of her vehicle after buckling her daughter into a the car when her first foot landed on the concrete but her second foot did not, causing her to fall onto the lower parking area and injure her arm.

Plaintiff filed suit, and defendants moved for summary judgment, which the trial court granted.  In its findings of fact, the trial court noted that plaintiff had seen the two separate parking levels and knew about them; that she saw that the rail covered only a portion of the upper space; that she had told the children in her family not to play on the upper parking space, as they could fall and be injured, and had asked her husband to park on that space to prevent the children from playing there; that it was light when she fell; that nothing prevented her from having someone back the car off the parking space before entering it; that the parked car was approximately three to three and a half feet from the edge of the drop-off; and that there was sufficient room for her to get into and out of the car without falling. The trial court concluded that “plaintiff had absolute and actual knowledge of the potentially dangerous condition,” that the condition was “open and obvious,” and that plaintiff “was at least 50% at fault for her fall and any injuries allegedly sustained therefrom.”

On appeal, the Court overturned the trial court, reversing the grant of summary judgment. The Court quoted extensively from several Supreme Court decisions, noting that “an owner…of premises has a duty to exercise reasonable care with regard to…business invitees on the premises,” and that a Supreme Court decision “held that a duty may exist even where the injury-causing condition is alleged to be ‘open and obvious’ to the plaintiff.” (quoting Rice v. Sabir, 979 S.W.2d 305 (Tenn. 1998)). In Coln v. City of Savannah, 966 S.W.2d 34 (Tenn. 1998), the Supreme Court stated:

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In Glasgow v. K-VA-T Food Stores, Inc., No. E2015-01653-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 31, 2016), the Court of Appeals affirmed a jury award in the full amount of compensatory damages sought by a Tennessee premises liability plaintiff.

While using the restroom in a grocery store, plaintiff lost his balance while standing up. He grabbed the handrail, which pulled out of the wall, causing him to fall and hit his head. Plaintiff presented testimony from himself and a doctor who had treated him both before and after the incident, as well as a deposition from the neurologist he saw after the fall. Plaintiff presented evidence that since the fall, he had experienced migraines and light sensitivity. He testified that this affected his life in several ways. He had to abandon his 14-year career in television production and instead go into radio because of his light sensitivity. Plaintiff asserted that the migraines were “debilitating, requiring him to ‘get out of the light’ and stay in a dark, cool space until the pain subsides.” Plaintiff admitted at trial that he was “not actively seeking treatment from a physician for his migraines and that he currently use[d] over-the-counter medication to treat his condition.”

At trial, the parties stipulated that plaintiff’s medical expenses were $5,310 and that he had a life expectancy of 38.36 years.

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In Fowler v. City of Memphis, No. W2015-01637-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 11, 2016), the Court of Appeals analyzed a case falling under the GTLA, ultimately holding that while plaintiff appeared to be making a premises liability claim, the case actually fell under a different provision of the Act.

Plaintiff was injured when he fell into an uncovered water meter in a sidewalk near his home. Plaintiff filed suit against various entities, but the one at issue on this appeal was Memphis Light, Gas, and Water. “According to the complaint the uncovered water meter was a dangerous condition of which [defendant] had actual and constructive knowledge.”

Defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that it “had no notice that the water meter box cover had been tampered with or that a dangerous condition existed at the location of [plaintiff’s] fall.” Defendant asserted that the water meter at issue had been taken out of service in 2007, and a cover had been put over it.

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In Reynolds v. Rich, No. E2015-01245-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. July 22, 2016), the Court of Appeals overturned summary judgment in a negligence case, finding that defendants did owe plaintiff a duty and that there were genuine issues of material fact regarding whether defendants breached that duty.

Defendant father gifted a piece of land to defendant daughter, and the father had taken charge of building a house on the land for the daughter. Defendants tried to secure as much labor as possible through family, friends and volunteers. Defendant father worked with plaintiff at the same company and had known plaintiff “for a number of years.” Father knew that plaintiff had previously re-roofed his own house with metal roofing, so he “asked plaintiff if he would like to help in view of his prior experience in installing such roofing on his own residence, and he agreed.” Plaintiff was not paid for this work, and while he and others were installing the roofing, plaintiff fell and suffered extremely serious injuries. Plaintiff then brought this negligence action.

Defendant father submitted an affidavit that stated that he asked all the volunteers, including plaintiff, whether they had any reservations about the job, and that none voiced any concerns. He averred that he offered plaintiff gloves, but that plaintiff refused, and that he told plaintiff he should stand on the felt material instead of the metal when affixing the metal roofing, but that plaintiff said his shoes were providing good traction. According to the father, “plaintiff did not request any assistance, tools, equipment, harness, rope, scaffold, support, any type of restraint or anything else.” Defendant stated that he did not know what made plaintiff fall, and plaintiff likewise stated that he could not identify the cause of his fall.

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The Court of Appeals recently affirmed summary judgment in a premises liability case where plaintiff could not prove defendant’s actual or constructive knowledge of the allegedly dangerous condition.

In Landrum v. Methodist Medical Center, No. E2015-01733-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. July 25, 2016), plaintiff was visiting her mother, who was a patient at defendant hospital, when she slipped and fell in a puddle of water on the floor. The puddle was near the 5th floor nurses’ station and was fairly large, estimated to be two to three square feet in size. Plaintiff fell when returning to her mother’s room on the 5th floor, having left the room 15 minutes earlier by the same route. Plaintiff testified that when leaving the room, she did not notice the puddle, and that she did not see it until she had already fallen. Plaintiff “did not know what caused the puddle or how long the puddle had existed.”

Defendant hospital submitted depositions from two employees, both of whom were at the nearby nurses’ station when plaintiff fell. One stated that he did not see the puddle until plaintiff fell and that he “had no knowledge regarding what caused the puddle or how long the puddle had existed.” The other testified that the puddle was “large,” and that she did not see the puddle until after the fall and had no knowledge of what caused it or how long it had been there.

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In Williams v. City of Jamestown, No. M2015-00322-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. June 23, 2016), the trial court dismissed a GTLA premises liability claim after a bench trial, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

Plaintiff was visiting the county courthouse and adjacent jail when he slipped and fell on ice in the parking area. Snow had begun falling the night before and accumulated approximately six inches by the time plaintiff went out the next day. The city had scraped and salted the roads and parking areas the night the snow began, and had been working since 5:30 a.m. on the day the fall occurred. When plaintiff drove into the courthouse parking lot, he noticed that the areas where the sun was hitting the ground were relatively free of snow, but he testified that he could only find a parking space in the shadowed area. Plaintiff entered and left the courthouse without incident, then walked over to the adjacent jail. On his way to the jail he walked “between a rock wall that bounded the courthouse grounds and the curb stops in the parking area,” which plaintiff stated was covered in snow and slush, but when leaving he “decided to walk out in the parking area” rather than following the same path. While in the parking area, plaintiff “turned his gaze from his feet to” a woman he met, and at that point slipped and fell on the ice.

During the bench trial, plaintiff admitted that there were six inches of snow on the ground that day and that “by venturing out, he was taking a serious risk.” He also testified that he did not have to go out that day. Further, evidence showed that the parking area had been scraped early that morning; the parking area had been further worked on at 10:00 am (approximately 3 hours before the fall); and that due to the 24 degree temperature, “it would have been difficult to keep salt treated areas from refreezing.”

The trial court dismissed plaintiff’s claim, finding that the city did not breach its duty of care to plaintiff, and that even if there were a breach, plaintiff was more than fifty percent at fault. In affirming dismissal, the Court of Appeals analyzed only the issue of whether the city breached its duty of care.

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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.”