Summary Judgment Reversed Given Conflicting Testimony in Premises Case

Where there were facts in dispute about whether a warehouse warned its workers about independent contractors working and using extension cords in the facility, summary judgment in a premises liability case was inappropriate.

In Miranda v. CSC Sugar, LLC, No. W2017-01986-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. July 5, 2018), plaintiff was a construction worker who was working at defendant’s warehouse as a contractor. Plaintiff and his brother were working on scaffolding and using an electric screw gun, which he plugged in with a one-hundred-foot extension cord to an outlet in a different part of the facility. The cord ran across a doorway at the warehouse, and on the third day that plaintiff was working, one of defendant’s employees drove a forklift in reverse across the cord, which entangled the cord and pulled on the scaffolding, causing plaintiff to fall and injure himself.

Plaintiff filed this premises liability suit against defendant, and the trial court granted defendant’s motion for summary judgment. The trial court ruled that defendant “had no duty to warn [plaintiff] of the allegedly dangerous condition which [plaintiff] or his co-employee created and knew about.” The Court of Appeals reversed this ruling.

Employees of independent contractors are considered invitees while on the premises of the contractee, and the premises owner thus “owes the employee the duty to exercise reasonable care to see that an employee has a reasonably safe place to work.” (internal citation and quotation omitted). Here, defendant argued that there was no duty to warn because plaintiff “controlled, created, and…had superior knowledge over” the allegedly dangerous condition. The Court of Appeals, however, disagreed.

The Court found that “the facts presented here create[d] a dispute as to whether [plaintiff] (or his brother) were in control of the environment in which they were working. Although [plaintiff]…placed the extension cord on the floor in the doorway, they had no control over [defendant’s] equipment or employees, who drove the forklift through the doorway and over the cord in the vicinity of [plaintiff’s] work area.” The Court pointed out that there was testimony showing that defendant’s employees were aware of the cord, and that plaintiff moved the cord several times at the employees’ requests. Further, there was testimony that all employees were warned about the contractors and the cord, but there was conflicting testimony from the forklift driver who caused the accident regarding whether he was warned. In addition, there was conflicting testimony regarding whether the driver stopped in the doorway and honked or drove over the cord with no warning. While the trial court seemed to rely on the argument that this was an open and obvious danger, the Court of Appeals noted that “an open and obvious danger does not automatically result in a finding of no duty,” and that “the foreseeability and gravity of harm” must still be weighed against the “burden of [defendant] to engage in alternative conduct.” (internal citation omitted).

The Court ultimately found that these factual “disputes bear directly on the question of whether [defendant] satisfied its duty to exercise reasonable care to ensure that [plaintiff’s] work area was safe,” and that summary judgment was thus not appropriate.

The Court did a good job analyzing the record here and was right to reverse summary judgment, given the factual issues that were material to the case.