Where a middle school student was injured when he tripped on his backpack strap, beginning a chain of events that knocked down a chair that was stacked on top of a table and injured his hand, summary judgment was affirmed based the lack of a dangerous condition and the injury not being foreseeable.
In Landry v. Sumner County Board of Education, No. M2019-01696-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. June 30, 2020), plaintiff was an 11-year-old student sitting with friends in his school cafeteria as he waited for the bell to ring to begin the school day. At this school, the chairs were always placed upside down on the top of the tables the day before so the custodians could clean. In the mornings, the kids would take down a chair to sit. On this particular morning, plaintiff’s backpack strap had unknowingly become wrapped around the leg of his chair. When plaintiff stood to leave, he tripped on the strap. As he fell, he pushed his chair away, and that chair hit a chair that was still upside down on a table. The upside down chair fell and hit plaintiff’s hand, severing the tip of one of his fingers.
Plaintiff and his parents filed this negligence and premises liability GTLA suit against the defendant Board of Education, and the defendant filed for summary judgment. The trial court granted summary judgment, and the Court of Appeals affirmed based on the lack of proof of a dangerous condition and the inability to prove that plaintiff’s injury was foreseeable.
The Court of Appeals first analyzed the premises liability claim, noting that the GTLA “basically codifies the common law obligations of owners and occupiers of property embodied in premises liability law…” (internal citation omitted). To prove his case, plaintiff needed to show, among other things, that “a dangerous [or] defective…condition caused the injury,” and the Court of Appeals agreed with defendant that plaintiff could not make such a showing (internal citation omitted).
Defendant pointed out that plaintiff himself had been in the cafeteria many times before and never been afraid of being injured by the chairs; that plaintiff’s parents had never expressed concern about the placement of the chairs; that there had been no previous injuries related to the placement of the chairs; and that plaintiff’s mother testified that “the sequence of events that led to [plaintiff’s] injury was an accident.” The Court ruled that this evidence was enough to negate an essential element of plaintiff’s claim, and it found that plaintiff’s assertions that the chairs could fall off the tables when bumped and that chairs had been knocked off the tables before was not enough to create a genuine issue of material fact. The Court explained:
Plaintiffs concede that ‘the Defendant correctly suggests that a chair in and of itself could not and does not present an unsafe, dangerous or defective condition;’ they argue that ‘the precarious manner in which the chairs were and are placed upside down on the tables and their history of being knocked loose that …establishes the placement of the chairs upside down presents an unsafe, dangerous, or defective condition.’ Plaintiffs, however, did not put forth any proof, expert or otherwise, to show that the manner in which the chairs were placed on the tables was precarious or that the chairs themselves were defective, dangerous or in any way unsafe. Neither did plaintiffs rebut the Board’s proof that [plaintiff’s] injury occurred when the strap on his backpack caught on the leg of the chair in which he was sitting, causing him to lose his balance. On the record presented, the mere fact that the chair could fall when it was bumped does not constitute a dangerous or unsafe condition.
Summary judgment on the premises liability claim was thus affirmed.
The Court also analyzed the general negligence claim asserted by plaintiff. Duty is an essential element of negligence, and “[w]ith respect to duty, a court must first establish that the risk of injury is foreseeable[.]” (internal citation omitted). The question of foreseeability is also important when considering the element of proximate cause. The Court ruled that defendant’s evidence that neither plaintiff nor his parents had expressed previous concerns about the placement of the chairs, as well as the fact that no previous injuries had occurred, satisfied defendant’s burden of showing that this injury was not foreseeable. The Court further ruled that plaintiff’s assertion that the custodians were aware that the chairs could be knocked down was not enough to create an issue of fact regarding foreseeability. The Court stated:
The undisputed evidence shows that [plaintiff] fell as a result of his backpack strap catching his leg as he stood from a seated position, causing him to lose his balance and fall. As he fell, he pushed his chair away from him to avoid falling on it, and inadvertently pushed his chair into one of the chairs resting upside down on top of another table….The evidence put forth by Plaintiffs could not lead a rational trier of fact to find that the injury was foreseeable.
Because there were no genuine issues of material fact regarding foreseeability or the existence of a dangerous condition, summary judgment was affirmed.
The facts of this case were not on plaintiffs’ side. With no evidence of previous injuries or complaints, and the events that caused the injury being started by tripping on a strap unrelated to the allegedly dangerous stacked chairs, the plaintiff here was facing a difficult battle to move past summary judgment, which he failed to do.
NOTE: This opinion was published less than a month after oral arguments in this case.