Articles Posted in Premises Liability

Tennessee businesses have a responsibility to keep their customers safe from unreasonably dangerous conditions on their property.  In an August 18, 2017 case, the Court of Appeals reviewed a Tennessee injury claim brought by a plaintiff who slipped and fell at a local restaurant.  After the circuit court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant, the plaintiff filed an appeal.ice

The plaintiff in the case was picking up lunch from the restaurant for approximately 25-30 people, including drinks and bags of ice.  After picking up a box containing food and a bag of ice, the plaintiff turned to leave and fell.  She testified that the floor wasn’t wet when she entered the restaurant, but when she fell, she was lying in water on the floor.  She also stated that the bag of ice felt mostly like water.  The manager of the restaurant testified in his deposition that the ice had been set out for a while and that condensation from the bag of ice had dripped onto the floor.  The plaintiff also offered testimony from her expert, who asserted that the industry norm is to store bags of ice in a freezer until the customer arrives to pick up the order.

In Tennessee, a negligence claim requires a plaintiff to prove:  (1) a duty of care owed by the defendant to the plaintiff; (2) conduct by the defendant falling below the standard of care, amounting to a breach of the duty; (3) an injury or loss; (4) causation in fact; and (5) proximate causation.  In a premises liability case, a business owner or occupier has a duty to exercise reasonable care with regard to customers on the premises.  This duty includes the responsibility to remove or warn against hidden dangerous conditions of which the occupier was aware or should have been aware.

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Premises liability is a legal concept that allows a property owner to be held responsible for certain injuries that occur on his or her land.  In a February 7, 2017 decision, the Court of Appeals of Tennessee reviewed a personal injury action brought by a plaintiff who was injured at a restaurant.  After the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant, the plaintiff appealed the ruling for review by the higher court.restaurant sign

In 2012, the plaintiff, who was in her early 70s, visited the defendant’s restaurant to attend a party on the second floor.  The stairwell had railings on both the left and right sides of the stairs.  The right-hand stair railing was decorated with garlands and Christmas lights, while the railing on the left side had no decorations on it.  After the party ended, the plaintiff began to descend the stairs.  When she reached for the handrail, she was unable to grasp the railing itself but instead grabbed only a handful of garland.  Without the rail to steady herself, she fell down the stairs, suffering a femoral shaft fracture on her left leg that ultimately required surgery.

In Tennessee, property owners are required to exercise due care under all of the circumstances.  This general duty of care imposes a responsibility to either remove or warn against any dangerous condition on the premises of which the property owner is actually aware or should be aware through the exercise of reasonable diligence.  However, this does not include conditions from which no unreasonable risk was to be anticipated.

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In a premises liability lawsuit, individuals who are injured on the property of another person or business may be compensated if they can prove the property owner was negligent.  The Court of Appeals of Tennessee recently reviewed a case involving this issue in Woodgett v. Vaughan (Tenn. Ct. App. Dec. 13, 2016).  In Woodgett, the plaintiff filed suit against the defendant homeowners after she fell and sustained injuries while viewing their home as a prospective buyer.  After a trial, the jury found in favor of the defendants.  The plaintiff appealed, arguing that the trial court erred in allowing the jury to see a surveillance video recorded by the defendants’ private investigator.steps

In Woodgett, the plaintiff viewed the defendants’ house without the listing realtor or the defendants present.  Below the attic doorway was a large landing and a wooden box that was used as a step to access the landing.  The box step was constructed out of wood planks and covered in carpet, and it was not fastened to the landing itself.  The plaintiff alleged that when she attempted to go down on the step, it gave way and caused her to fall.  The plaintiff testified that after the fall, she suffered injuries and a limp that made everyday activities difficult, including walking, standing, bending, using stairs, and otherwise being active.

The defendants retained a private investigator to observe and record the plaintiff during her daily activities outside her home.  At trial, the defendants sought to introduce the surveillance videos into evidence.  The plaintiff objected, arguing that the videos were irrelevant and unduly prejudicial and held her out as a person of means by driving a Cadillac Escalade and several other cars and shopping.  The defendants contended that the videos were probative because they showed the plaintiff walking in heels, standing, and getting in and out of motor vehicles without difficulty.

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Accident victims may face additional challenges when pursuing a personal injury claim against a municipality or government body, due to legal restrictions on liability.  However, there are statutory exceptions that may apply under the Tennessee Governmental Tort Liability Act (GTLA).   In Miller v. Jackson-Madison County General Hospital District, et al. (Tenn. Ct. App. Dec. 8, 2016), the Tennessee Court of Appeals reviewed a negligence claim brought by the plaintiff against a municipal hospital after a lower court ruled in favor of the hospital following a bench trial.hallway

In Miller, the plaintiff was injured when she slipped and fell in water on the floor of a municipal hospital.  The plaintiff filed suit against the hospital, alleging that it negligently caused her injuries by failing to maintain the hallway and protect her from hidden and latent defects of which it had knowledge.  Although generally, a case may not be brought against a governmental entity under the doctrine of sovereign immunity, the GTLA removes immunity in limited and enumerated instances for certain injuries.

Under the GTLA, a governmental entity such as the hospital in Miller is not immune from suit for an injury caused by the dangerous or defective condition of a public building or improvement owned and controlled by the governmental entity.  For latent defective conditions, as in Miller, liability is only removed if the governmental entity had constructive or actual notice of the condition.  Accordingly, the plaintiff must establish that a dangerous condition existed and that the hospital had notice of the condition.  Notice may be shown when the condition was caused or created by the defendant, or when the condition was caused by someone other than the defendant if the defendant nevertheless had actual or constructive notice of the condition prior to the accident.

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Filing a personal injury claim against a municipality or government agency involves additional legal considerations, including its potential immunity from prosecution.  In Fowler v. City of Memphis (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 11, 2016), the Court of Appeals of Tennessee discussed these aspects of a premises liability case against a governmental defendant.  The plaintiff was injured when he fell into an uncovered water meter in the sidewalk.  He filed suit against the city and the water company, alleging that the uncovered water meter was a dangerous condition of which the defendants had actual and constructive notice.  After the lower court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants, the plaintiff appealed.  faucet

Although the city and water company are generally immune from liability pursuant to the Tennessee Governmental Tort Liability Act, immunity does not apply to any injury caused by a defective, unsafe, or dangerous condition of any street, alley, sidewalk or highway, public building, structure, dam, reservoir, or other public improvement owned and controlled by such a governmental entity.  In such cases, the plaintiff must prove that the governmental entity had constructive or actual notice of the allegedly defective or dangerous condition.  Another part of the Act removes immunity for injuries caused by the negligent acts or omissions of governmental employees within the scope of their employment, unless the accident arises out of their performance of a discretionary function.

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Last week, the Court of Appeals of Tennessee reviewed a jury verdict in a premises liability case, ultimately affirming the award of $250,000 to the injured plaintiff. In Glasgow v. K-VA-T Food Stores, Inc. (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 31, 2016), the plaintiff filed a personal injury lawsuit against the operator of a grocery store after he was injured while using the restroom. At trial, the court denied the defendant’s request for a directed verdict and submitted the case to the jury, which awarded $350,000 in compensatory damages. The trial court approved the verdict but reduced the award to the amount of damages actually pled by the plaintiff, i.e., $250,000. The defendant appealed, arguing that the damages awarded by the jury were not supported by material evidence.restroom

In Glasgow, the plaintiff entered the defendant’s grocery store and proceeded to the restroom. After using the facility, the plaintiff attempted to stand but lost his balance, causing him to grab a handrail. The handrail pulled away from the wall, causing the plaintiff to fall and hit his head. The plaintiff immediately sought medical treatment from a hospital. In the days, months, and years following the accident, the plaintiff experienced uncontrollable migraines, accompanied by severe nausea or vomiting.

On appeal, the defendant did not contest the issue of fault but instead the amount of compensatory damages awarded to the plaintiff for his injury. The appeals court therefore reviewed the evidence concerning the extent of the plaintiff’s injuries. At trial, the plaintiff testified that his migraines and light sensitivity caused him to change his 14-year career from television and video production to radio. The plaintiff’s doctors also provided testimony that the post-concussive migraine headaches he experienced for years following the accident may continue through his lifetime, although there was no objective test to determine one’s tendency to have future migraines.

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In a recent Tennessee premises liability case, the Court of Appeals addressed the issue of whether the defendants owed the plaintiff a duty after he was injured while voluntarily performing work on their property. In Reynolds v. Rich (Tenn. Ct. App. July 22, 2016), the plaintiff agreed to assist with the installation of a metal roof on the defendants’ house. During the installation, the plaintiff fell from the roof and suffered serious injuries, including skull fractures, a broken neck, shattered bones, and nerve damage to his face. Although no one knew what caused the plaintiff to fall from the roof, the plaintiff brought suit against the defendants for negligence. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants, finding that the plaintiff was a volunteer worker rather than an employee of the defendants, and there was no evidence that the defendants violated a duty to the plaintiff.roofing accident

To establish a claim for negligence in Tennessee, a plaintiff is required to prove the following elements:  (1) a duty of care owed by the defendant to the plaintiff; (2) conduct by the defendant falling below the standard of care, amounting to a breach of the duty; (3) an injury or loss; (4) causation in fact; and (5) proximate causation. In a premises liability case, a property owner has a duty to exercise reasonable care with regard to social guests or business invitees on the premises. The duty includes the responsibility to remove or warn against latent or hidden dangerous conditions on the premises of which the owner was aware, or should have been aware through the exercise of reasonable diligence.

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The Court of Appeals of Tennessee recently made a decision in a premises liability case involving the Tennessee Governmental Tort Liability Act. In Williams v. City of Jamestown (Tenn. Ct. App. June 23, 2016), the plaintiff slipped and fell on ice in the parking area of the county courthouse. Since the parking lot was owned by the city, the plaintiff filed suit against the city under the Tennessee Governmental Tort Liability Act. The trial court dismissed the claim, finding that the city did not breach a duty of care to the plaintiff, and even if there was a breach, the plaintiff was more than 50 percent at fault for his injuries. The plaintiff subsequently appealed to the higher court.slip and fall

In Williams, snowfall had accumulated up to six inches in the city of Jamestown on the day of the injury. City personnel had scraped and salted roads and parking lots on the night before and into the morning. When the plaintiff arrived at the courthouse, he observed that most of the parking lot was relatively clear of snow, with the exception of the north side of the building. However, the plaintiff parked in the area with remaining ice and snow because it had the only available space. As the plaintiff left the courthouse and walked toward his vehicle, someone spoke to him. When the plaintiff turned his gaze to the woman, he slipped on ice and fell, severely injuring his right wrist. The plaintiff brought suit against the city, which owned the parking lot.

In Tennessee, local governments have a duty to exercise reasonable care to protect individuals on their property from unreasonable risks of harm. Included within this duty is a duty to either remove dangerous conditions on their premises or to warn people about dangerous conditions of which the owner knows or should know. In the case of natural accumulations of snow and ice, property owners are expected to take reasonable steps to remove snow and ice within a reasonable time after it has formed or accumulated. Tennessee courts have previously held that what is reasonable depends upon many factors, including the length of time the accumulation has been present, the amount of the accumulation, whether the accumulation could be removed as a practical matter, the cost of removal, and the foreseeability of the injury.

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In a recent case, the Court of Appeals of Tennessee examined whether or not a plaintiff’s injuries were reasonably foreseeable in order to establish premises liability in a wrongful death claim. In Singletary v. Gatlinburlier, Inc. (Tenn. Ct. App. Apr. 25, 2016), a customer fainted and fell into an antique glass display case while visiting a retail store in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. The glass in the display case shattered, piercing her chest and tragically causing her death. Her husband sued the retail store and the mall in which it operated for negligence. The trial court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, finding that the injuries were not reasonably foreseeable.broken-glass-1569217-639x425

To prevail on a premises liability claim based upon negligence, a plaintiff must establish:  (1) a duty of care owed by the defendant to the plaintiff; (2) conduct by the defendant that was below the standard of care, amounting to a breach of a duty; (3) an injury or loss; and (4) actual and proximate causation. The doctrine of res ipsa loquitur permits an inference that the defendant was negligent in the absence of an explanation from the defendant, as a result of the circumstances surrounding an accident or injury. Although a plaintiff relying on the doctrine benefits from an inference that the defendant breached its duty, the plaintiff must still establish the elements of duty, injury, and causation.

In Singletary, the defendants provided evidence that the antique display case at issue was about 30 years old at that time, and it had withstood collisions from baby carriages, children leaning against and pushing on it, and other substantial impacts. The defendants also testified that the glass was cleaned regularly and did not appear to be fragile or insubstantial, and there was no expectation that the glass would break. In addition, the defendants argued that nothing about the condition of the store caused the victim to fall.

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In a recent premises liability case, the Court of Appeals of Tennessee reviewed a summary judgment order entered in favor of the defendants. In Fuller v. Banks (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 3, 2016), the plaintiff rented one side of a duplex from the defendants. The plaintiff was ascending the steps to her front porch when the post that held the guardrail gave way, causing her to fall and break her arm. The plaintiff brought a personal injury claim against the defendants, alleging that they were negligent in failing to maintain the stability of the guardrail, warn her of the risk, and inspect the guardrail. The trial court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, finding that there was no evidence to indicate that the defect existed at the time the defendants leased the premises to the plaintiff.

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Generally, a landlord is not liable to a tenant or a third party for harm caused by a dangerous condition on the leased premises. However, this general rule of a landlord’s non-liability is subject to several exceptions. One exception applies if the following facts are shown:  (1) the dangerous condition was in existence at the time the lease was executed; (2) the landlord knew or should have known of the dangerous condition; and (3) the tenant did not know of the condition and could not have learned about it through the exercise of reasonable care.

In Fuller, the defendants presented testimony from an expert who opined that the guardrail pole had been hit by a car at some time after the execution of the lease. He based his opinion on the fact that the pole showed no signs of rotting, and it had been pushed out toward the street with an indentation of a bumper. The defendants argued that they had no knowledge of any dangerous condition created by the incident, if it had occurred. The plaintiff stated that the pole and railing had remained unchanged since she moved into the premises almost a year ago, and she had no difficulty in using the stairs prior to her accident. She did not notice anything wrong with the railing, nor had she notified the defendants of any problem with the premises.

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