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Premises liability summary judgment affirmed based on insufficient evidence of causation.

Where plaintiff filed a premises liability claim against the State asserting that decedent’s death was caused by injuries he sustained when he fell off a sidewalk that constituted a dangerous condition, but plaintiff could not “show that the condition of the sidewalk more likely than not caused” the fall, summary judgment for defendant was affirmed.

In O’Guin v. State, No. M2020-00732-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. July 28, 2021), decedent was admitted to the Tennessee State Veterans’ Home after suffering a stroke. He was in a wheelchair, but was “alert, oriented, and able to communicate with staff.” While spending time outside just two days after his admission, decedent “fell outside the facility entrance” and “suffered serious injuries and tragically died five days later.”

Plaintiff filed this case with the Claims Commission as administrator of decedent’s estate, “alleging that the State negligently created or maintained a dangerous condition on the property.” Plaintiff asserted that decedent was “fatally injured after his wheelchair fell off the sidewalk in front of the facility entrance,” and that the height of the sidewalk combined with the “lack of sufficient markings or barriers at the edge of the sidewalk created a dangerous condition.”

Plaintiff filed a motion for summary judgment as to liability and damages, supported by evidence that “the facility administrator was aware of three prior accidents involving wheelchair-bound patients who fell off a sidewalk.” The State filed a counter motion for summary judgment, arguing that plaintiff could not prove causation. The Claims Commission granted summary judgment to the State, finding that plaintiff’s proof of causation was insufficient, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

“Causation is an essential element in any negligence action.” (internal citation omitted). To oppose summary judgment, plaintiff relied on two accident reports and deposition testimony from the facility administrator, which plaintiff argued established causation. The reports stated that decedent “was outside enjoying the weather when he rolled his wheelchair off the side of the curb hitting the left side of his face on the pavement,” and that when decedent “was rounding a corner on the front sidewalk [he] was unable to negotiate the turn.” The facility administrator had agreed that “at least one of the wheels on [decedent’s] wheelchair touched or went over the edge of the sidewalk, causing him to fall.” The Court of Appeals noted, however, that plaintiff “must do more than explain the mechanics of the fall,” but must instead “come forward with evidence that tends to show that the State’s conduct was more likely than not the cause of the fall.” (internal citation omitted).

In affirming summary judgment for the State, the Court stated:

[T]he claimant cannot show that the condition of the sidewalk more likely than not caused [decedent’s] fall. [Decedent] may have been distracted; the sun may have been in his eyes; or his physical condition may have impeded his control of the wheelchair. And while it is possible that [decedent] fell because the sidewalk was dangerous, no evidence supports that theory. The claimant submitted photographs depicting an ordinary paved sidewalk surrounding the rehabilitation facility. The height difference between the sidewalk and the pavement by itself does not prove that the sidewalk is dangerous. The claimant argued that previous accidents involving wheelchair-bound patients on the sidewalk put the State on notice of a dangerous condition. But the accidents touted by the claimant were too remote and unrelated to establish that the specific location where [decedent] fell was dangerous.

Because the Court of Appeals agreed that plaintiff’s evidence was insufficient to establish causation, summary judgment was affirmed.

NOTE: This opinion was released three weeks after oral arguments in this case.

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