Summary Judgment Reversed Given Evidence of Opposing Party

In Chambers v. Illinois Central Railroad Co., No. W2013-02671-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. May 5, 2015), plaintiffs brought a negligence action against defendant for property damage sustained in a flood. A culvert ran under defendant’s railroad track, and according to plaintiffs, the failure to maintain and keep this culvert free from debris was the cause of the flooding on plaintiffs’ property.

Defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, which the trial court eventually granted on two grounds. First, the trial court found that a relevant federal regulation “substantially subsumed the subject matter of the plaintiffs’ state law claim,” such that if defendant had complied with the regulation the action was preempted. The trial court determined that defendant had presented uncontroverted testimony regarding the condition of the culvert before the flood and thus proved the “affirmative defense of preemption.” Second, the trial court determined that expert proof was required on this issue of causation, and since plaintiffs had no expert to contradict the condition of the culvert immediately before the flooding, plaintiffs could not prove causation, an essential element of their negligence claim. The Court of Appeals, however, reversed on both of these grounds.

As to preemption, the Court of Appeals agreed that if defendant had complied with the relevant federal regulation then plaintiffs’ negligence claim would be preempted. The threshold question, though, was whether defendant had in fact complied with the regulation, which related to the upkeep and design of culverts. While defendant presented testimony from a employee that he inspected the culvert immediately before the flooding and found it unobstructed, the plaintiffs presented testimony from plaintiff’s own deposition alleging that the culvert was “stopped up” and testimony from two neighbors who stated that the drainage ditch and culvert opening were blocked with debris, sticks, and trash. The Court of Appeals pointed out that the parties “presented conflicting accounts of the condition of the culvert at the relevant time period,” and therefore whether the defendant had complied with the federal regulation was disputed. According to the Court, “[w]hether [defendant] complied with the regulation is a question of fact that must be settled before the court can determine whether Plaintiffs’ claim is preempted and, thus, is material.” The Court therefore found that defendant was not entitled to summary judgment based on preemption.

Regarding causation, the Court disagreed with the trial court’s finding that expert testimony was required. Instead, the Court quoted the Tennessee Supreme Court’s observation that “[m]ost people of average intelligence know how water flows and that a ditch facilitates the flow, even though they may not understand all of the natural forces that make it do so,” and determined that lay witnesses could testify as to the condition of the culvert. (quoting Lawrence County Bank v. Riddle, 621 S.W.2d 735 (Tenn. 1981)). Again, the Court pointed to the testimony of the neighbors presented by plaintiffs, as well as plaintiffs’ expert testimony that had the culvert been unobstructed the water would have flowed and the flooding would not have occurred. When viewed together, the Court determined that the evidence presented by plaintiffs created a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether the culvert was obstructed, thus causing the flooding, and that summary judgment on this basis was not appropriate.

This was clearly the correct result in this case. Based on the record as it was presented in this opinion, the plaintiffs appeared to have a well-developed case with testimony from an expert witness as well as three different neighbors and plaintiff himself. Plaintiffs here had obviously demonstrated that there were genuine issues of material fact, and summary judgment was not a proper way to dispose of this case.

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