Claims Commissioner Must Make Conclusions of Law For Each Theory of Negligence

 

Where the Claims Commissioner’s ruling for defendant on a negligence suit did not include conclusions of law regarding both of plaintiffs’ theories, the order of dismissal was deemed deficient and was vacated by the Court of Appeals.

In Kim v. State, No. W2018-00762-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 26, 2019), plaintiffs filed a negligence claim after their six-year-old son fell from a fifth-floor balcony at a state-owned hotel. Plaintiffs were guests of the hotel as part of a church group, and while checking out, the son became separated from his parents. The son went upstairs to the room that plaintiffs had been staying in, and despite having already been cleaned, the door to the room was ajar. The son entered the room, went onto the balcony, climbed on top of the railing, and ultimately fell, sustaining major injuries. Testimony at trial established that it was both hotel and industry policy for a housekeeper to ensure that the door to a hotel room was locked after it had been cleaned, and it was undisputed that the son could not have gained access to the room if it had been locked. It was further established that the housekeeper who cleaned this particular room “had previously been reprimanded for neglecting to secure a room after cleaning it.”

The trial also consisted of much testimony regarding the balcony railing. It was undisputed that the railing was not compliant with applicable building codes, as it was 36 inches high instead of 42 inches. The state produced evidence, though, that “regardless of the balcony being six-inches short of complying with the building codes, [the son] would not have been able to fall over it without first climbing on top of it.”

The Claims Commissioner issued a long written ruling dismissing the case, finding that plaintiffs “failed to establish the essential element of proximate cause.” He ruled that “this claim arose because [the son] climbed on top of the balcony railing and fell. Applying the reasonably prudent person standard of care, the occurrence of such an event was simply not foreseeable.”

On appeal, plaintiffs argued that they had advanced two theories of negligence—one being that the railing was not compliant with applicable codes, and the other being that defendant was negligent “in allowing their son to gain access to an unoccupied guest room and the attached balcony.” Plaintiffs asserted that “the Commissioner made no conclusions of law as to the allegation that the Inn’s failure to secure its guest room door was a proximate cause of [the son’s] injury.” The Court of Appeals agreed, ruling that the lack of any conclusions of law regarding this theory of negligence meant that the order should be vacated.

The Court of Appeals noted after reviewing relevant Tennessee Code sections and Rule 52.01 of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure that “applicable law makes clear that Commissioners are required to provide findings of fact and conclusions of law in all cases tried before them.” In this matter, the Court found that “the Commissioner’s order contains neither express nor implied conclusions of law regarding a central argument that was properly raised in this case.” Because the order decided the case solely on the basis that the height of the railing was not a proximate cause of the fall, the Court ruled that the order should be vacated, stating that plaintiffs “are entitled to full consideration of this claim by the Commissioner…” (internal citation omitted).

One interesting note about this case is that the Court of Appeals specifically pointed out that the Commissioner’s decision was 89 pages long. Even in 89 pages, though, the Commissioner failed to make required rulings on both of plaintiffs’ two negligence theories. This case reminds us that a lengthy opinion does not necessarily equate to a sufficient one.