Landlord not liable for tenant’s fall down stairs.

Where a tenant brought a premises liability claim against a landlord based on a loose piece of wood at the top of stairs inside an apartment, but the evidence showed that the tenant and landlord walked through the apartment before the lease began and neither noticed the allegedly dangerous condition and that plaintiff himself lived in the apartment for a month and a half without becoming aware of the loose wood, summary judgment for the landlord was affirmed.

In Fisher v. Villages at Henley Station, LLC, No. M2018-01990-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 24, 2020), plaintiff rented a townhome from defendants. The townhome had been built about eight months before the lease began, and plaintiff was the first resident. Before the lease was signed, plaintiff did a walkthrough of the townhouse with the property manager, and neither of them noticed a problem with the stairs. Plaintiff lived in the home for approximately one and a half months, using the stairs daily with no problem, but then suffered a fall that he alleged was caused by a plank of wood not properly connected at the top of the stairs. The evidence showed that plaintiff had not noticed the issue before his fall and that no other tenants had experienced such an issue.

The trial court granted summary judgment to defendants, finding that there was “no proof to indicate that the allegedly dangerous condition was in existence when the lease was executed” and that there was no proof that defendants had knowledge of the condition. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

A landlord is generally “not liable for injuries to tenants caused by a dangerous condition on the leased premises,” unless an exception to the general rule exists. (internal citation omitted). Here, plaintiff alleged that the situation fell within an exception which applies when three elements are proven: “(1) the dangerous condition was in existence at the time the lease was executed; (2) the landlord knew or should have known of the dangerous condition; and (3) the tenant did not know of the condition and could not have learned about it through the exercise of reasonable care.” (internal citation omitted). The Court of Appeals pointed out, though, that “the uncontroverted evidence demonstrate[d] that Defendants had no knowledge of any dangerous condition with regard to the stairs.”

The Court noted that plaintiff’s own evidence showed that “the loose piece of wood was not visibly open and obvious,” and that “the evidence demonstrate[d] that Plaintiff had no knowledge of the dangerous condition, but neither did Defendants…” Essentially, plaintiff’s evidence regarding his own lack of knowledge of the dangerous condition also showed that defendants had no reason to be aware of the potentially dangerous plank. Accordingly, summary judgment was affirmed.

This case is a good reminder that premises liability cases by tenants against landlords can be difficult to prove. When evaluating whether to take such a case, a lawyer must pay close attention to the facts and be aware of the proof required to establish liability.

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