In Singletary v. Gatlinburlier, Inc., No. E2015-01621-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. April 25, 2016), the Court of Appeal affirmed summary judgment for defendants in a premises liability case. While visiting a retail store in Gatlinburg, a woman unexpectedly fainted and fell into a glass display case. The case shattered and a piece of glass pierced the woman in the chest, and she later died from the injuries she sustained. The woman’s husband sued the retailer and mall where the store was located, alleging that the “narrow or cluttered aisles and the case’s fragile glass, which shattered and impaled” his wife were the proximate cause of her death. The husband alleged that the defendants breached their duty to his wife because the display cabinet was a “dangerous condition.”
Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, attaching an affidavit and depositions in support. The evidence offered by defendants showed that the glass case in question here was common in other stores in Gatlinburg; that it had been in use for around 30 years; that during the 30 years it had been used by the store, it had withstood “collisions from baby carriages, children leaning against and pushing on it and an impact from a ‘purse the size of a refrigerator;’” that the glass was “cleaned regularly and ‘never appeared to be fragile or insubstantial;’” and that the store had “no expectation that the glass would break.” Based on these facts, the trial court granted summary judgment. The trial court ruled that “nothing Defendants did or failed to do caused [the wife] to fall,” and that “prior experiences with the antique display case did not alert the Defendants that the harm done to this particular plaintiff was foreseeable.” The trial court ultimately held that the “injury could not have been reasonably foreseen. Therefore, the duty of care does not arise.” The Court of Appeals affirmed this ruling.
On appeal, plaintiff asserted that summary judgment should be overturned because the defendant knew the glass was “nonshatterproof” and due to the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, which “permit[s] an inference that the defendant was negligent in the absence of an explanation from the defendant.” (internal citation and quotation omitted). The Court, however, rejected this argument. According to the Court of Appeal, res ipsa loquitur did not apply in this situation because “Defendants’ evidence shows use of reasonable care and no notice of any problem with the case.” To prevail in a negligence case like this, the Court pointed out that plaintiff would be “required to prove that the injury was a reasonably foreseeable probability and that some action within the defendant’s power more probably than not would have prevented the injury. …The fact that an injury might be conceivable is not sufficient to create a duty.” (internal citation and quotation omitted).
Here, the Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court that plaintiff had failed to make such a showing. The Court ruled that “Defendants have presented evidence that the glass had survived many years and many collisions while showing no signs of fragility. [The store] had no expectation that the glass would break.” The Court held that “the incident was not a reasonably foreseeable probability” and that “no duty existed,” affirming summary judgment for defendants.\
This case is a good reminder to lawyers evaluating new cases that an injury (even a very serious or fatal one) occurring in a retail store does not necessarily make for a meritorious claim. Here, a woman fainted, through no fault of the store, and fell into a glass display case that is a common fixture in many retail establishments. As sad and tragic as these facts may be, they do not give rise to a valid premises liability claim.