Where plaintiff’s deposition created a “dispute of material fact” as to whether defendant had actual notice of the alleged dangerous condition in this GTLA premises liability case, summary judgment for defendant was reversed.
In Vaughn v. Coffee County, Tennessee, No. M2021-00653-COA-R3-CV, 2022 WL 1652552 (Tenn. Ct. App. May 25, 2022) (memorandum opinion), plaintiff was an inmate at defendant county’s jail. Plaintiff alleged that the toilet in his cell leaked, causing water to accumulate in the floor, which caused him to slip and badly injure his hip one day when he was hurriedly getting his plate of food from an officer at the front of his cell. Plaintiff admitted that he was aware of the water and even stated that he had slipped in the water a few days prior to this incident.
Defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, which the trial court granted based on its ruling that plaintiff had not presented proof from which the court could find that defendant had notice of the allegedly dangerous condition. On appeal, this ruling was reversed.
There was no dispute that this case fell within the parameters of the GTLA, which generally codifies premises liability common law. Under Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-20-203(a) or § 29-20-204(a), a defendant will only be liable for an injury caused by a dangerous condition if the defendant had “constructive and/or actual notice” of the condition.
In support of its motion for summary judgment, defendant essentially relied on the argument that it did not have notice of the alleged water on the floor. While plaintiff testified in his deposition that he reported the leak to at least three people and that he also reported his previous fall caused by the leak to jail personnel, defendant asserted that such reports were never made and that no one was given notice of the leak. Defendant further asserted that a few days before the fall, plaintiff’s cell was flooded due to plaintiff sticking clothes into his toilet, and that said water was cleaned from the cell. In its order granting summary judgment to defendant, the trial court specifically wrote that “plaintiff’s uncorroborated deposition testimony does not overcome the sworn statements of these three jail employees.”
The Court of Appeals, however, ruled that plaintiff’s deposition testimony that he told three jail employees about the leak was enough to create a genuine issue of fact regarding actual knowledge of the dangerous condition. The Court pointed out that because plaintiff said he reported the leak while the employees said he did not, the “trial court was faced with directly competing proof.” The Court explained that “because there was directly conflicting testimony on this issue, a credibility issue was created,” and that “issues that turn on credibility generally cannot be decided via summary judgment.” (internal citations omitted).
Defendant argued that plaintiff’s statement in his deposition that he did not know when he made the reports should lead to an inference that the reports were made before the time that plaintiff allegedly flooded his cell by putting clothing in the toilet, flooding which defendant testified was cleaned, meaning that defendant did not have notice of any water after this incident. The Court noted, however, that pursuant to Tennessee’s summary judgment standard, the Court was “required to draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party.” (internal citation omitted). Here, “Plaintiff’s proof taken with all the reasonable inferences in his favor, was that his conversations concerning the water on the floor must not have been in reference to the incident…that was cleaned up by defendant’s employees” and must have taken place between that incident and the fall.
Defendant argued that summary judgment should be affirmed here based on the alternative ground of comparative fault, but the Court refused to consider this argument because the issue of comparative fault had not been considered by the trial court. Likewise, because defendant had not raised its lack of duty argument at the trial court, the Court of Appeals also refused to consider that argument.
Because plaintiff’s deposition created a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether defendant had actual knowledge of the water on the cell floor, summary judgment for defendant was reversed. This opinion is a good reminder that issues of credibility are not typically decided at the summary judgment stage, and that all reasonable inferences should be drawn in favor of the non-moving party when considering a summary judgment motion.
This opinion was released two months after oral arguments in this case.
Note: Chapter 41, Section 7 of Day on Torts: Leading Cases in Tennessee Tort Law has been updated to include this decision.
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