In Hoynacki v. Hoynacki, No. E2015-02084-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 31, 2016), the Court of Appeals overturned summary judgment in a case about whether a dad had a duty to hold or stabilize a ladder for his son.
Defendant father owned an RV, and while he was camping in North Carolina near where his son lived, he called his son and asked him to help wax the RV. The two spent Saturday and Sunday waxing the RV. “When the RV’s height required the use of a ladder, plaintiff got on it to wax the top parts, and defendant stayed on the ground to stabilize and secure the ladder.” On their second day of work, plaintiff was on the ladder waxing the front part of the RV above the windshield. The ground where the ladder was sitting sloped away from the RV such that one side of the ladder was lower than the other. Defendant placed the ladder in this position, and then walked to the other side of the RV while plaintiff was working. When plaintiff began to come down the ladder, the ladder fell and plaintiff was seriously injured.
Plaintiff sued his father, alleging that defendant “breached his duty to exercise due care in the selection of the work site, in the placement of the ladder, and in holding the ladder in order to prevent unreasonable risks of harm to the plaintiff.” The trial court granted summary judgment to defendant, finding that plaintiff worked on the ladder for 2-4 minutes without feeling it was unstable, and that the “ladder was properly stabilized in its finial position prior to plaintiff’s accident.” The trial court held that “under [those] circumstances, that defendant had no legal duty nor did he assume any such duty to hold the stabilized ladder while plaintiff attempted to climb down prior to his accident.” The Court of Appeals reversed this holding.
When analyzing whether a defendant owed a duty in a negligence case, “the court must balance the foreseeability and gravity of the potential harm against the burden imposed on the defendant in protecting against that harm.” (internal citation omitted). As the Court noted, in Tennessee, “one who assumes to act, even though gratuitously, may thereby become subject to the duty of acting carefully.” (quoting Biscan v. Brown, 160 S.W.3d 462 (Tenn. 2005)).
Here, the Court looked to the deposition testimony of both plaintiff and defendant. Plaintiff testified that he and his father were communicating nonverbally; that his father would hold the ladder while he climbed up, then continue holding it if he felt it was unsafe or unstable; and that his father would stay nearby, within an arms reach, while he worked on the top of the ladder. Defendant testified that he held the ladder each time plaintiff climbed up but that he rarely, if ever, held it when plaintiff was working; that he would make sure the ladder was stable before leaving plaintiff; that if the ladder was unstable he would reposition it before plaintiff climbed up; that he did not remember ever holding it when plaintiff was climbing down; and that he was about 15-20 feet away when plaintiff began climbing down and fell. Further, defendant testified that he “could have done more to prevent the accident,” and that the ladder would not have fallen if he had been holding it.
Based on this evidence, the Court of Appeals held that “defendant assumed a duty to stabilize and secure the ladder while plaintiff was working on it.” The Court reasoned:
Both parties testified that defendant would hold the ladder at times to ensure plaintiff was working safely. …It is undisputed that the ground on which the ladder was standing was not level. …Defendant stated that he was aware of the dangers of working on a ladder alone. Under the circumstances established by the record, it was foreseeable that the ladder might fall and cause injury to plaintiff in the absence of someone holding and securing it. Moreover, the alternative conduct that would have prevented the harm—holding the ladder on the sloping ground—is not overly burdensome. Indeed, it seems to be one of the primary tasks that defendant undertook in the two-person job of waxing his RV.
Accordingly, summary judgment was overturned, as the Court held that a duty existed. The case was remanded for a determination of whether that duty was breached.
The Court got this case right. The facts of this case showed that there were issues of material fact and that summary judgment was not appropriate here.