Fall Down Stairs Not Enough to Win – Need Causation

Where a plaintiff fell down stairs but could not identify what caused his fall, summary judgment should have been granted in a premises liability case.

In Cartee v. Morris, No. M2018-02272-COA-R9-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Sept. 6, 2019), plaintiff worked for defendant, and part of his job entailed delivering checks to a two-story building that was a residence turned office space. On the day of the fall, plaintiff ascended the main wooden staircase to the second floor offices, and at the top of stairs an employee had placed a dog gate. According to affidavits from employees, the dog gate was not secured to the wall, but was instead simply propped up “so it could be easily moved,” and it was about one and half feet tall. Plaintiff did not recall how he got over the dog gate on his way up the stairs. After delivering the checks, plaintiff fell down the staircase, causing him to be unconscious for two days. Plaintiff did not remember the accident and could not remember what caused his fall. Two employees who were present on the second floor heard the fall, but neither of them witnessed the fall. They both testified that when they went to check on plaintiff after hearing the fall, he and the dog gate were on the landing.

Plaintiff filed this premises liability claim, and defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing that plaintiff could not establish the cause in fact of his fall. The trial court denied the summary judgment motion, finding that “a reasonable juror could find that an unsecured dog gate at the top of a flight of stairs could have caused” the fall, but the Court of Appeals reversed.

In order to succeed on a premises liability claim, a plaintiff must prove the elements of a negligence case, including “causation in fact.” (internal citation omitted). Pursuant to previous Tennessee case law, a plaintiff alleging an injury from a fall “must know what caused him to slip and fall.”

[I]n the context of injuries to plaintiffs resulting from a fall, mere speculation about the cause of an injury is insufficient to establish liability on a negligence claim. As such, a plaintiff will be prevented from establishing negligence when he, either personally or with the use of outside witnesses, is unable to identify what caused the fall. …A plaintiff cannot speculate as to what caused the fall.

(quoting Epps v. Thompson, No. M2017-01818-COA-R3-CV, 2018 WL 1353589 (Tenn. Ct. App. Mar. 15, 2018)).

In this case, neither plaintiff nor either of the potential witnesses “was able to identify the object or condition that caused [plaintiff] to fall down the staircase as he attempted to leave the second floor of the building.” The Court noted that although the witnesses heard the dog gate fall and saw it on the landing, “this circumstantial evidence does not tend to exclude any other cause, such as [plaintiff] falling due to fainting or tripping over his own feet.” Because plaintiff could not prove this essential element of his claim, defendants should have been granted summary judgment.

This case is yet another reminder that evidence of a fall is not enough to sustain a premises liability case. Before taking such a case, it is important to vet your evidence and witnesses to determine whether causation will be an issue.

            NOTE: To aid lawyers in giving clients guidance about how long it takes to receive an opinion after oral argument in the appellate courts, we are going to start sharing that information with readers.   Please understand that the length of time that elapses between oral argument and the date the opinion is released is dependent on a multitude of factors, not the least of which is the complexity of the issues presented.  In this case, the opinion was released less than two months after oral argument.