Tennessee Court Employs Rule of Seven to Evaluate Comparative Negligence Claim Against a Minor

Tennessee is a comparative negligence state. This means that when a plaintiff’s negligence is greater than a defendant’s negligence, the plaintiff cannot recover compensation from the defendant, even if the defendant was partially negligent in causing an accident or injury.  Comparative negligence assumes full capacity, however, and special rules must be applied when dealing with negligence claims involving children. The courts choose to treat them differently and apply a test known as the Rule of Seven to determine how responsible a child plaintiff is for his or her own negligence.  A recent case before the Tennessee Court of Appeals applies this test in considering a negligence claim from a teenage plaintiff who fell while at summer school.

In Crockett v. Sumner County Board of Education, Andrew Crockett and his parents sued their school district and Andrew’s school after Andrew slipped and fell while at summer school.  Andrew was attending the second-to-last day of summer school when someone pulled a prank in the boy’s bathroom, causing the toilets to overflow. When none of the students would admit to having performed the prank, the teachers decided that all of the boys would be required to clean up after the spill, including mopping up from the spill and picking up trash in the gym area where the prank occurred.  Andrew began by mopping the floors and alleged that his feet became wet at the time. He then transitioned to cleaning trash from the bleachers. While going down the bleachers, he slipped and fell, breaking his leg.  Andrew testified that he was stepping up and down the “seating” part of the bleachers, rather than the stairs, since this is what all the students were doing. He also testified that the teachers observed him and other students doing this and did not stop them, but he admitted that he had known for many years that it was not safe to go up and down the bleachers this way. The teacher in the gym at the time testified that the floors were not overly wet, Andrew’s shoes should not have been wet, he had repeatedly warned students not to step up and down on the bleachers, and most students were using the stairs at the time of the accident.

Based on this testimony, the court issued an opinion finding that Andrew was himself negligent prior to the fall and that his negligence was the sole cause of the fall. He appealed.

The Court of Appeals began by looking at the Rule of Seven. Since Andrew was 13 at the time of the accident, the court held that he could not be evaluated under normal comparative negligence standards. Instead, under the Rule of Seven, a child under seven is held to have no capacity for negligence. Children between seven and 13 have a rebuttable presumption that there is no capacity for negligence. Children between 14 and 18 have a rebuttable presumption that they do have capacity.  Here, the court noted that since Andrew was 13, he fell close to the time when the rebuttable presumption changes from being in favor of the plaintiff minor to against the plaintiff minor. However, it applied the rebuttable presumption that Andrew did not have capacity.

It further noted that Andrew and his teachers had testified that Andrew had been warned of the dangers of stepping up and down the bleachers and knew about the dangers of his actions. Based on this evidence, the Court of Appeals determined that Andrew knew the risks and consequences of stepping up and down the bleachers and had the capacity to be negligent when he chose to use them anyway. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals determined that while Andrew was presumed not to have capacity, the school successfully rebutted this presumption by showing that Andrew understood the consequences of his actions.  It affirmed the trial court’s determination that Andrew was comparatively negligent and that his negligence was equal or greater to the school’s negligence, thereby precluding his recovery.

Accidents and injuries can be complicated, and there may be multiple parties involved who are partially responsible for the damages incurred. If you are a plaintiff seeking to bring a negligence claim, it is important to make sure that your own negligence was not a significant factor in the accident, such that it could prevent you from recovering compensation. Experienced Tennessee premises liability attorney Eric Beasley can help you evaluate whether your fault might amount to 50% or more, or whether you are likely to receive compensation for your injuries.  For more information or to discuss the circumstances of your case, contact the Law Office of Eric Beasley today at 615-859-2223.

Related Blog Posts:

Tennessee Court Considers When a Party Can Be Held Liable For An Agent’s Negligence, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, October 12, 2016

Tennessee Court Declines to Review Apportionment of Fault – Bachar v. Partin, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, August 11, 2016

Managing Parallel Civil and Criminal Proceedings for Personal Injury Claims, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, February 24, 2016