Where a defendant has changed its story regarding relevant facts, leaving material facts in dispute, summary judgment is inappropriate.
In Schacklett v. Rose, No. M2017-01650-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. May 2, 2018), plaintiff filed a premises liability claim after falling at defendants’ home. Plaintiff was a catering employee who had entered the home in the daylight using outdoor stairs that led to the kitchen. At the end of the evening, she left by the same stairs, and she fell “through a break in the railing,” landing on concrete. According to plaintiff, “there were no house lights and the motion lights on the steps…were not operating,” and “the entire area was dark.”
When defendant homeowners answered the complaint, they denied that there were no lights and that motion sensor lights were in place. They also “denied that the entire area was dark and therefore dangerous.” Later, in response to requests for admissions, defendants “stated that the outside lighting was working on the night of the accident.” They further asserted that instead of having motion sensor lights that were not working, they had “overrode the timer by placing the lights ‘all on’ for the party.” When defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, however, they asserted that “the exterior lights were off when [plaintiff] fell, and [plaintiff] was negligent in failing to turn the lights on before proceeding down the stairs.”
The trial court granted summary judgment to defendants, holding that they did not owe plaintiff a duty, but the Court of Appeals reversed.
On appeal, plaintiff argued that summary judgment was inappropriate because there were “fact disputes concerning: the adequacy of the lighting…[plaintiff’s] familiarity with the layout of the stairs and break in the railing; and, assuming the lights were off, whether [plaintiff] could have successfully located the light switch or someone to assist her in turning on the outside lights.” The Court of Appeals ultimately agreed.
The Court noted that “duty is the legal obligation a defendant owes to a plaintiff to conform to the reasonable person standard of care in order to protect against unreasonable risks of harm.” (internal citation omitted). When determining whether a risk is unreasonable, the court must look at whether “the foreseeable probability and gravity of harm posed by the defendant’s conduct outweigh the burden upon the defendant to engage in alternative conduct that would have prevented the harm.” (internal citation omitted). In this case, the issue was “whether [plaintiff] has made any showing from which it can be said that the defendants reasonably knew or should have known of the probability of an occurrence such as the one which caused her injuries.” (internal citation and italics omitted).
In analyzing this case, the Court pointed out the many fact disputes at play—whether the railing was a dangerous condition once it was dark, what kind of lighting existed, and whether the lack of lighting was the cause of the accident. While the trial court based its ruling on the conclusion that “the exterior lights were not on” and that defendants had “provided operative lights that were capable of illuminating the stairwell,” the Court of Appeals found that these “factual assumptions…were not established by the proof or appropriate at the summary judgment stage.” The Court ruled that summary judgment was not appropriate, stating: “we are unable to determine whether or not the Homeowners owed [plaintiff] a duty of care because of conflicting, relevant material factual allegations in the record.” Further, the Court pointed out that even if the break in the railing was found to be “open and obvious,” the “duty balancing test” would still need to be utilized, as an open and obvious danger does not automatically relieve a property owner of his or her duty of care.
Despite the factual disputes, defendants argued that summary judgment should be affirmed because “no reasonable juror could conclude that [plaintiff] was less than fifty percent at fault for her own injuries.” The Court rejected this argument, though, noting that it was based on the “assumption that the outside lights around the stairs were indeed turned off when [plaintiff] fell.” Since there were still factual issues in question regarding the lights, this determination could not be made at this stage. Summary judgment was thus reversed.
This case was clearly decided correctly. Plaintiff’s counsel here did a good job preserving and presenting the record so the Court of Appeals could clearly see that there were disputes of material fact. If you have a case where a trial court grants summary judgment despite the existence of material fact issues, presenting the record well can save your client’s claim.