Liability for negligence of a state employee.

Where a housekeeper failed to use wet floor signs in a dorm bathroom, plaintiff received damages for the negligence of a state employee.

In Hood v. State of Tennessee, No. E2023-00773-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. April 3, 2024), plaintiff was a student at the University of Tennessee. Her dorm room included a bathroom area at the entry, with two bedrooms adjoining the bathroom. The bathroom connected to the dorm hallway. After arriving at her room one day, she crossed the bathroom floor to her bedroom. The floor was dry at that time. She ate lunch with headphones in, then went back out to the bathroom. When she stepped into the bathroom, she fell on a wet substance that smelled like cleaner and broke her arm.

Plaintiff filed her claim with the Tennessee Claims Commission for her “injuries caused by the negligence of a state employee.” Plaintiff testified that the floor was saturated when she fell. In fact, her clothes soaked through, requiring her to change before going to the hospital. Plaintiff provided a detailed timeline of when she likely arrived and how long she ate lunch. She asserted that the floor was wet from being cleaned while she ate lunch in her room, and that the housekeeper failed to warn her of the wet floor.

Defendant State presented evidence from the housekeeper via deposition. She testified about her general practices and asserted that, per her routine, she would have cleaned plaintiff’s room later in the afternoon. She admitted that she did not use a wet floor sign, but said she knocked before entering rooms.

The Claims Commission ruled for plaintiff, finding that the housekeeper acted negligently and the negligence caused plaintiff’s injuries. The Court of Appeals affirmed this finding.

Tenn. Code Ann. § 9-8-307(a)(1)(C) allows the State to be sued for the negligence of a State employee in certain circumstances. In the premises liability context, this statute “removes the state’s immunity to the same extent as the obligation of a private owner or occupier of land.”

Here, the State argued that plaintiff failed to prove that the housekeeper created the dangerous condition. The Court of Appeals disagreed. While there was some dispute regarding the timeline, the housekeeper undisputedly mopped the bathroom in question that day. The Court agreed that plaintiff showed that the mopping most likely occurred while she was in her room listening to headphones. Further, the housekeeper admitted that she used no wet floor warnings. Because the Commission found plaintiff credible, and plaintiff presented sufficient detailed evidence regarding the events of the day, the Court affirmed the ruling for plaintiff.

Defendant also argued that the damages awarded by the Commission were too high. The Commission found plaintiff’s medical expenses to be approximately $47,000, but awarded a total of over $187,000 to plaintiff. After considering the pain and suffering, permanent injury, scarring, and loss of enjoyment of life, the Court of Appeals affirmed the full amount of damages.

The Court released this opinion 1.5 months after oral arguments.


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