No Defect Arises By Decorating Handrail

In Cruce v. Memmex Inc. D/B/A Salsa Cocina Mexicana Restaurant, No. W2016-01167-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 7, 2017), the Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment in a premises liability case because plaintiff failed to prove the existence of a dangerous condition.

In December 2012, plaintiff was going to a party on the second floor of defendant restaurant. On her way up the stairs, “she noticed that the railing on her right side was decorated with garland and Christmas lights,” and she said she had trouble finding anywhere to place her hand on the railing. When she was leaving the party and going back down the stairs, she reached for the decorated handrail but asserted that she “was unable to grasp the railing itself and instead only gripped a handful of garland.” She then fell, breaking her leg. Although plaintiff stated that she did not notice it at the time, it was undisputed that the railing on the other side of the stairwell was not decorated.

Plaintiff filed suit, alleging that the restaurant “created a dangerous condition by covering a safety device, i.e., handrail, with items that impeded its use.” Defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, relying primarily on the deposition of the restaurant owner wherein he stated that he had decorated one of the handrails for fifteen years and never had a problem, that no one had ever fallen down the stairs “either as a result of the Christmas decorations or for any other reason,” and that only one of the handrails was decorated. The trial court granted summary judgment, ruling that “the decorated handrail did not constitute a dangerous or defective condition for purposes of premises liability,” and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

On appeal, plaintiff’s central argument was that “the trial court improperly required her to try her case at the summary judgment stage.” The Court, though, noted that Tennessee’s summary judgment standard meant that defendant restaurant was “entitled to summary judgment if it [could] demonstrate that the undisputed material facts at the summary judgment stage are insufficient to establish a dangerous condition for purposes of premises liability.” In order to defendant against summary judgment, “the nonmoving party must do more than simply demonstrate some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts; the nonmoving party must demonstrate the existence of specific facts in the record which could lead a rational trier of fact to find in favor of the nonmoving party.” (internal citation and quotation omitted).

Here, the Court affirmed summary judgment, pointing out that plaintiff “either admitted or failed to respond” to all the facts contained in defendant’s statement of undisputed facts, and that the facts were thus taken as true for the purpose of the motion. The Court explained that the three crucial facts here were that (1) only one of the stairway handrails was decorated, yet two were present; (2) that the handrail had been decorated in the same way for fifteen years; and (3) that no one had fallen because of the decorations before. Each of these facts was contained in the statement of facts, and all were undisputed. Based on these facts, the Court held that “[t]he fact that no accidents had occurred in such a long period of time on the stairs at [defendant] restaurant despite the regular use of Christmas decorations establishes that it was not reasonably foreseeable that the Christmas decorations would ‘probably’ cause harm.” Because the condition was not dangerous for purposes of premises liability, it was irrelevant that it had been created by the restaurant itself. The Court concluded that plaintiff “failed to meet her burden to show that there [was] a genuine issue for which trial [was] necessary,” and summary judgment was affirmed.

In coming to its decision, the Court spent more than one paragraph pointing out plaintiff’s failure to offer any evidence to support her case. The Court stated:

In complete derogation of her duty under Rye, [plaintiff] submitted no evidence, in the form of building codes or other sources, showing that the handrail at issue is a ‘safety device’ that is per se made dangerous by the addition of garland and Christmas lights. Moreover, [plaintiff] cites to no legal authority…in which Tennessee courts have previously held that the addition of garland or other decorations to one of two handrails flanking a staircase impedes its use and renders the condition dangerous. Indeed, [plaintiff] fails to cite a single case in her appellate brief that she asserts is analogous to the present case wherein the court held that the evidence presented was sufficient to establish a dangerous condition. …[Plaintiff] has simply pointed to no evidence other than the isolated incident of her fall…to show that a reasonably prudent person would not have maintained the stairwell in the same fashion or that it was reasonably foreseeable that an injury would more than likely occur.

The lesson here, which we’ve seen many times before, is that you must have some evidence to defeat summary judgment. Evidence of injury alone is simply not enough in a premises liability case. When a plaintiff is asserting the existence of a dangerous condition, he or she must be able to show something more than his own fall or else face the same fate as the plaintiff in this matter.