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Summary judgment affirmed where plaintiff knew about leak before she slipped.

Where a residential tenant and property owner both knew about a leak which formed a puddle of water that caused plaintiff to slip, defendants property owner and property manager were not liable for plaintiff’s injuries and summary judgment was affirmed.

In Richardson v. H & J Properties, LLC, No. W2019-02082-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 21, 2020), plaintiff moved into a triplex apartment owned and operated by defendants in March 2014. In the following months, she reported leaks in her laundry room and adjoining room several times. On September 10, 2014, she again reported a leak in this area of her apartment. The next day, a maintenance worker was sent to the apartment to repair the leak, and while plaintiff was showing him the issue, she slipped and fell in a “small pool of water” that had been caused by the leak, breaking her ankle.

Plaintiff filed this suit alleging common law negligence and a violation of Tennessee’s Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act (URLTA). Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that because plaintiff was aware of the leak in her home her claim must fail. The trial court granted summary judgment to defendants, which was affirmed on appeal.

In premises liability cases involving landlords and tenants, Tennessee common law states that “generally, a landlord is not liable to a tenant or a third party for harm caused by a dangerous condition on the leased premises.” (internal citation omitted). While this general rule is subject to exceptions, “the landlord is not liable to the tenant for injuries sustained as a result of the dangerous condition” when the landlord and tenant “have co-extensive knowledge of the dangerous condition.” (internal citation omitted).

While the facts here showed that plaintiff knew about the leak, plaintiff argued that the “URLTA displaces the common law principles of landlord non-liability for injuries arising out of a dangerous condition.” Plaintiff asserted that provisions of the URLTA that required the landlord to “make all repairs and do whatever is necessary to put and keep the premises in a fit and habitable condition” provided a basis for her claim in this situation. (quoting Tenn. Code Ann. § 66-28-304(a)(2)). The Court rejected this argument, explaining:

As codified in Tennessee, the URLTA expressly provides, ‘unless displaced by this chapter, the principles of law and equity…supplement [the URLTA] provisions.’ Thus, in the absence of an express provision that negates or modifies the applicable common law principles, the co-extensive knowledge rule is applicable to this case.  Tennessee Code Annotated section 66-28-304(a)(2)…is devoid of language that would lead this Court to rule otherwise. Moreover, …in Tennessee, the URLTA applies only in counties having a population of more than seventy-five thousand. This limited adoption of the URLTA does not lend itself to a conclusion that the legislature intended a sweeping modification of the common law. …Taken together, we cannot say that the general principles of landlord non-liability are displaced by a landlord’s duties under the URLTA.

(internal citations and quotations omitted).

Because the URLTA did not displace common law premises liability rules, and because plaintiff and defendant had co-extensive knowledge of the leak that caused the slip and fall, the Court of Appeals ruled that plaintiff could not establish the elements of her case. Summary judgment was thus affirmed.

The facts of this premises liability case were simply not on plaintiff’s side. Plaintiff had documented knowledge of the allegedly dangerous condition before her fall, which made it impossible for her to prove the elements of her claim here.  Note too that this was not a case where the plaintiff was required to navigate the dangerous area to go to work, school, etc. or in an emergent situation.

 

NOTE:   This opinion was released five weeks after oral argument.

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