Fall Down Steps Not Enough to Prove Premises Liability Case

Where plaintiff failed to present any proof that the stairs owned by defendant were defective, the trial court’s finding for defendant was affirmed.

In James v. City of Dyersburg, No. W2018-00614-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 22, 2019), plaintiff filed a GTLA premises liability suit after falling on stairs outside of a city building. In her complaint, plaintiff alleged that she fell due to the city’s negligence in “failing to provide a handrail on the steps, and in failing to correct a defect…being a separation between step and a metal strip[.]” At trial, plaintiff testified that she “stepped down from the top step with her right foot onto the second-step, but as she tried to step down with her left foot, the two-inch heel of her left shoe got caught on the metal strip on the stairs[.]” She also testified that she was unable to catch herself due to the absence of a handrail. Despite her allegation that the stairs were defective, plaintiff offered “no measurements…and no proof…of any code violations or applicable code requirements for the steps, stairway, or handrails,” nor did she present expert testimony.

The trial court noted that plaintiff’s testimony at trial was somewhat different than her deposition testimony, and it “questioned whether the heel [of plaintiff’s] shoe could actually get caught between the strip and the concrete.” The trial court also “found it significant that Plaintiff chose to walk down the middle of the steps and not use the handrail on the right side of the steps[.]” The trial court ruled that plaintiff failed to prove what caused her fall and that she failed to prove that there was a defective or dangerous condition. The trial court further ruled that even if there was a dangerous condition, plaintiff had failed to prove that defendant had notice. The trial court dismissed plaintiff’s claim, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

The Court of Appeals noted that this premises liability claim arose under the GTLA, and stated that “in the context of injuries resulting from defects or obstructions that cause injuries to pedestrians using a street or sidewalk in the usual and customary manner, a municipality may be held liable if the injury is foreseeable.” (internal citation omitted). The Court agreed with the trial court’s decision that plaintiff had not made the requisite showing in this case. The Court reasoned:

Plaintiff provided no expert proof to support her contention that the design of the steps, the installation of a handrail on only one side of the steps, or the elevation of the metal strip on the edge of the steps constituted a dangerous or defective condition. Moreover, she provided no proof of any code violations or citations.

The Court also noted that photographs presented by plaintiff showing that the city installed a second handrail after her fall could not be used to prove negligence, as such a use of subsequent corrective measures would run afoul of Rule 407 of the Tennessee Rules of Evidence. The Court ultimately held that the “Plaintiff failed to prove that a dangerous or defective condition existed” and affirmed dismissal.

This is yet another example of a common problem faced by plaintiffs in premises liability cases—evidence of an injury alone does not prove the existence of a dangerous condition. Plaintiffs must do more than show that they fell in order to succeed in such a case.