In Miller v. Jackson-Madison County General Hospital District, No. W2016-01170-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Dec. 8, 2016), the Tennessee Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment in a slip and fall case based on a lack of proof of notice of the dangerous condition.
Plaintiff was visiting her brother at defendant hospital when she left his room to find a nurse. In the hallway, she allegedly slipped and fell in water and injured herself, which was the basis for this premises liability suit. According to plaintiff’s trial testimony, she did not see anything on the floor before she fell, but after her fall she noticed a “trail of water [that] led to a food cart against the wall in the hallway.” Plaintiff did not inspect the cart, and she “did not know whether the water was leaking from the food cart or had been spilled near it.” She also did not know how long the water had been there or whether any hospital employees knew about the water.
After a bench trial, the trial court “found the evidence insufficient to demonstrate that the Hospital or its employees caused or had actual or constructive notice of the water on the floor prior to [plaintiff’s] fall,” and thus entered judgment for defendant. The Court of Appeals affirmed this decision.
Because the defendant hospital was a governmental entity, this case fell under the GTLA. The Court noted, however, that the portion of the GTLA that addresses liability for a dangerous or defective condition “essentially codifies the common law obligations of owners and occupiers of property embodied in premises liability law.” (internal citation omitted). To succeed on her claim, then, plaintiff needed to show that the hospital had notice of the dangerous condition by either showing that the hospital or its employees/agents created the condition or that the hospital had actual or constructive notice of the water prior to the fall. “Constructive notice may be established through evidence that the condition existed for such a length of time that the defendant, in the exercise of reasonable care, should have become aware of it.” (internal citation omitted).
Looking at plaintiff’s testimony from trial, the Court pointed out that plaintiff did not know where the water came from, did not know if a hospital employee caused the water to be in the floor, did not know whether a visitor might have bumped the cart and spilled the water, did not know if anyone from the hospital had seen the water, did not know how long the water had been in the floor, and did not know whether water had previously leaked from this cart or any other hospital cart in the past. Accordingly, the Court deemed plaintiff’s testimony insufficient to prove that the hospital caused the water to be in the floor or that it had actual or constructive notice of the water.
In its analysis, the Court stated that plaintiff appeared to be relying on the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, which “permits a fact-finder to infer negligence from the circumstances surrounding an injury.” (internal citation omitted). To use res ipsa loquitur, a plaintiff must show “(1) what object or condition caused the injury, (2) that the object or condition that caused the injury is of a kind that does not ordinarily occur in the absence of negligence, and (3) that the instrumentality causing the injury was under the defendant’s exclusive control when the injury occurred.” (internal citation omitted). “[T]he doctrine of res ipsa loquitur does not apply when the plaintiff’s injury could reasonably have occurred without the defendant’s negligence.” (internal citation omitted). In the present matter, the Court ruled that res ipsa loquitur would not apply. The Court stated that “the evidence presented does not foreclose other reasonable explanations for the water’s presence on the floor” other than the hospital’s negligence. The Court specifically noted that plaintiff had conceded in her testimony that a visitor could have bumped the cart and spilled the water, or that a visitor could have spilled water from a different source near the cart.
Because plaintiff could not prove actual or constructive notice, and because res ipsa loquitur did not apply, the judgment for defendant was affirmed.
This case is a reminder that in premises liability claims, evidence of injury is most likely not enough for a plaintiff to succeed. Here, plaintiff essentially had no evidence beyond the fact that she saw water that appeared to trail towards a food cart. In a case like this, prior complaints of water from food carts or video evidence regarding how long the water had been there and whether the cart had been bumped by a visitor or employee could have made a big difference.