Fall-From-Ladder Case Falls Short

Where a painter fell off a ladder but could not prove cause in fact or proximate cause, summary judgment on his negligence claim was affirmed.

In Epps v. Thompson, No. M2017-01818-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. March 15, 2018), plaintiff was hired by defendant to paint the exterior of her house. Defendant provided the painting material and two ladders, a folding ladder and an extension ladder, for plaintiff’s use. While using the folding ladder to paint the uppermost eave of the home, defendant fell and was injured. He subsequently filed this suit, claiming the “landowner was negligent for providing him with old ladders that were unsafe.”

During his deposition, plaintiff stated that defendant had told him the ladders were old, but worked. He noted that he had first tried to use the extension ladder, but that it did not seem to be working properly. He said he tried several different placements of the folding ladder before going up and beginning to paint on the day of the injury. When asked what happened when he fell, plaintiff stated: “I don’t know if it was the devil or an act of God. The ladder just kicked out. It just kicked out.” Plaintiff admitted that he did not see or check the condition of the ladder after he fell, so he did not know whether some part of the ladder had broken.

In defendant’s deposition, she stated that plaintiff told her after his fall that a neighbor had come and asked him a question just before the fall, and that he said “he turned around to talk to her, and he said when he turned back around to start painting, that he just—he didn’t know what had happened. He just fell off the ladder.” Defendant testified that she was not present while plaintiff worked, that she had purchased the folding ladder around 2004, and that she did not have a conversation with plaintiff about the safety of the ladder before he began the job.

Defendant moved for summary judgment, asserting that plaintiff could not prove causation in this case. The trial court granted the motion, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

A plaintiff making a negligence claim must be able to prove both cause in fact and proximate cause. A court “will not presume negligence simply because an accident occurred. A plaintiff must be able to prove causation.” (internal citation and quotation omitted). Quoting from a previous Court of Appeals case, the Court noted:

[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. In other words, a plaintiff must know what caused the fall.

(internal citation omitted).

Here, because of his lack of evidence and his admission that he did not know what happened, the Court found that plaintiff “could not carry his burden on an essential element of his case, [that] the condition of the ladder was a cause in fact of his fall and injury.”

In addition to cause in fact, the Court also found that plaintiff could not establish proximate cause. The Court noted that defendant did not believe the ladder was dangerous, and if it was she had no knowledge of the potential danger, facts which plaintiff admitted in his response to the summary judgment motion. The Court found that plaintiff had “not pointed to any evidence showing it was foreseeable to [defendant] that [plaintiff] would suffer an injury as a result of the ladders’ condition.” The only evidence presented by plaintiff was an expert report regarding the condition of the ladders, but the expert did not inspect the ladders until more than two years after the fall, and his report focused on the extension ladder, which was not relevant to the case.

Because plaintiff did not have the evidence to prove causation, summary judgment was affirmed.

This case shows the importance of gathering appropriate evidence in a timely fashion (as well as the importance of vetting cases before taking them). Here, the only evidence presented by plaintiff was the expert report, but it was done too long after the accident and focused on the wrong facts. Because of this lack of evidence, plaintiff could not prevail on this claim.