No Liability When Customer Broke Chair

Evidence of an accident or injury alone is not enough to withstand a motion for summary judgment in a premises liability case.

In Jobe v. Goodwill Industries of Middle Tennessee, Inc., No. M2017-02299-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. June 4, 2018), plaintiff was a shopper at a Goodwill store. When she “attempted to sit in a plastic chair that was displayed for sale,” the chair collapsed, causing plaintiff to fall and injure herself. Plaintiff filed this premises liability action, and defendant filed a motion for summary judgment. The trial court granted summary judgment to defendant, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

In a premises liability case, a plaintiff must be able to prove the elements of a negligence claim, and also that “the condition was caused or created by the owner, operator, or agent or that the owner or operator had actual or constructive notice that the condition existed prior to the accident.” (internal citation omitted). While business owners must keep their properties reasonably safe, they are “not responsible for removing or warning against conditions from which no unreasonable risk was to be anticipated.” (internal citation omitted).

In support of its motion for summary judgment, defendant submitted deposition testimony from two employees who stated that donated items are “visually inspected and examined by a donation attendant when received and inspected again by a processing employee before merchandise is priced and placed on the sales floor.” One employee stated that while they do not sit on furniture to inspect it, they move it around and check its sturdiness. Further, defendant cited part of plaintiff’s deposition testimony wherein she answered that there was nothing “apparent or obvious to [her] in looking at [the chair] while it was still intact that told you it might not be safe to sit on.”

During its analysis, the Court of Appeals looked to a very similar Georgia case where a chair at a resale shop had broken when a customer sat on it. In that case, the Georgia Court of Appeals held that summary judgment should have been granted for the store “because there was no evidence that [the store] possessed superior knowledge of the hazard posed by the chair.” (citing Family Thrift, Inc. v. Birthrong, 785 S.E.2d 547 (Ga. Ct. App. 2016). In that case, “the customer presented no evidence to establish exactly how the chair was defective, how long the defect existed, or whether the defect was one that would have been visible during an inspection.” The court in that case found that “the store owner had no duty to discover a defect that had not manifested until the incident causing the injury.”

Here, the evidence was very similar to the Georgia case. Defendant Goodwill presented evidence that showed that all items are inspected when donated, and even plaintiff’s own testimony was that there was nothing obviously wrong with the chair. The Court found that this “tended to disprove [plaintiff’s] assertion that Goodwill had constructive notice of the hazardous, dangerous and unsafe condition of the plastic chair,” or that Goodwill created the dangerous condition “by failing to safely maintain and inspect the facility.” The Court ultimately held:

[Plaintiff] was required to demonstrate that the defective condition of the chair was either caused or created by Goodwill or that Goodwill had actual or constructive notice that the condition existed prior to the accident. The undisputed facts establish neither. [Plaintiff] did not attempt to demonstrate constructive notice by showing that a dangerous or defective condition existed for such a length of time that a property owner, in the exercise of reasonable care, should have become aware of it, nor did she attempt to establish that the dangerous condition resulted from a pattern of conduct, a recurring incident, or a general or continuing condition. Courts need not submit to the jury negligence cases containing only a spark or glimmer of evidence that requires the finder-of-fact to make a leap of faith to find the defendant liable for plaintiff’s injury.

(internal citations and quotations omitted). Accordingly, summary judgment for defendant was affirmed.

Plaintiff also attempted to argue on appeal that the chair had been mislabeled by defendant and was actually a side table. The Court held, though, that because she “did not raise this mislabeling argument in the trial court in response to the motion for summary judgment,” they would not consider it on appeal.

As we’ve seen many times in premises liability cases, evidence of an injury is not enough to sustain a claim. A plaintiff will usually need more than just an accident to show that a defendant created or had actual or constructive notice of an allegedly dangerous condition.