Notice – Actual or Constructive – Required in Fall Down Cases

Where claimant tripped on a laptop cord while participating in a class activity, but she had no evidence showing how long the cord had been there or who put the cord there, the Claims Commission’s finding that the professor of the class was not negligent was affirmed.

In Bryant v. State, No. W2022-00968-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Nov. 14, 2023), claimant was a student in an occupational therapy class at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. During one class, the teacher set up an activity which required the students to walk to different areas of the room to fill out papers. The professor testified that she checked the area for hazards while setting up the activity and that she asked all the students to move their personal belongings so that they would not be in the way. The professor further stated that both before and during the activity, she did not see a cord in the floor. The evidence showed that the other students in the class had already walked in the area of the fall without issue. In addition, the professor had done this activity three other times and never had an issue.

Claimant testified that she did not see the cord before she fell, but instead saw it several minutes after she fell. Some of her deposition testimony conflicted slightly with her trial testimony, but she testified that no other classmates reported that they had seen the cord or had an issue with the cord.

The Claims Commission ruled for the State. It found that the professor checked the area for hazards and told students to put their things away. While it also found that claimant tripped on a cord, it ruled that claimant had not proven constructive notice of the allegedly dangerous condition. The Court of Appeals affirmed this ruling.

When a claimant files a premises liability claim against the State, she must prove, along with additional elements, that the State either created the dangerous condition or had actual or constructive notice of the condition. Here, there was no allegation that the State created the dangerous condition or had actual notice of the alleged cord in the floor, so the issue was whether the claimant had shown constructive notice.

The Court of Appeals first considered whether the claimant had shown that the “dangerous condition existed for such a length of time that a reasonably prudent person should have been aware of it[.]” Noting that “[a]s a general rule, constructive knowledge cannot be established without some showing of the length of time the dangerous condition had existed,” the Court pointed out that claimant offered no proof regarding how long the cord had been there or when the cord was plugged into the outlet. (internal citation omitted). Further, the professor testified that she did not see the cord when setting up the activity. Based on this evidence, the Court ruled that the Claims Commission did not err in “its failure to find that a dangerous condition existed for such a length of time that [the professor] should have been aware of it.”

Constructive notice can also be shown when the dangerous condition “resulted from a pattern of conduct, a recurring incident, or a general or continuing condition which would also put the premises owner on constructive notice.” In her argument, however, claimant focused on the professor’s setup of the activity, apparently advancing a “method of operation” argument. The Tennessee Supreme Court has explained the method of operation theory for showing constructive notice is more nuanced than some think, stating that “the owner’s way of doing business is not determinative” of whether there was constructive notice of a dangerous condition. (internal citation omitted). Claimant’s emphasis of the professor’s method of operation therefore did not support a finding of constructive notice.

Because the claimant failed to show constructive notice of the allegedly dangerous condition, the Claims Commission’s ruling for the State was affirmed.

This opinion was released two months after oral arguments in this case.

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