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Landlord Liability Even for Open and Obvious Dangerous Conditions in Tennessee

handrailWhen dealing with premises liability and other personal injury cases, it is well accepted that landlords and owners have a duty to warn those entering or using their property of known dangerous conditions. If a plaintiff does not know that a condition exists, it is impossible for them to avoid it, and an injury or even death can result. When a landlord or an owner makes a plaintiff aware of a dangerous condition, but the plaintiff knowingly decides to encounter it anyway, liability may transfer from the defendant to the plaintiff. That is, the plaintiff may become comparatively negligent, and the defendant may be absolved from liability. A recent case before the Tennessee Court of Appeals deals with one of the more rare circumstances in a comparative negligence claim – when a plaintiff is aware of the risk and knowingly encounters it, but the defendant may still be liable for the injury that results.

In Matherne v. West, Ms. Matherne rented a cabin from Mr. West near Gatlinburg, Tennessee. At the time she rented the cabin, Mr. West sent her pictures of the property and informed her that it had a split level parking area. The upper parking area looked down on the lower parking area and was constructed at an angle. In places, the upper area was several feet above the lower area, while in other areas, it was closer. A handrail was constructed to protect individuals standing on the steeper part of the parking area, but it did not extend the entire way along the upper parking area. Ms. Matherne had observed this split level parking before she arrived and upon her arrival. She also observed the partial handrail. Ms. Matherne instructed her kids not to play on the upper parking area because she did not want them to fall. However, she continued to park a vehicle on the upper parking area. In the evening, Ms. Matherne went out to her vehicle to take her children to an arcade. After buckling one of her children in, she stepped backward away from the vehicle and off the upper parking area. She fell backward onto the lower parking area and injured herself. She later sued Mr. West for negligence.

Mr. West moved for summary judgment on Ms. Matherne’s claims. He argued that Ms. Matherne was fully aware of the dangers of the upper parking area, as evidenced by the fact that she observed it and warned her children about it. Accordingly, he took the position that Ms. Matherne was at least 50%, if not more, liable for the injuries she incurred, and, under Tennessee’s comparative negligence laws, she could not recover from Mr. West. The trial court agreed and granted Mr. West’s motion for summary judgment. Ms. Matherne appealed.

On appeal, the Tennessee Court of Appeals acknowledged that it was undisputed that Ms. Matherne had knowledge of the dangerous condition and knowingly encountered it. The court noted, however, that this did not end the inquiry. When considering the duty of a landlord or owner to another party, courts must weigh the foreseeability of the harm against the burden on the defendant to prevent the harm from occurring. If the foreseeability is great, and the burden is minimal, the defendant may be liable even if the plaintiff was fully aware of the dangerous condition. Here, the Court of Appeals noted that the foreseeability of the harm was obvious and significant. There was a significant discrepancy in height between the upper and lower parking areas, so there was a possibility of a harmful fall. The defendant acknowledged and partially alleviated this potential harm by placing a handrail on part of the upper parking area but did not fully extend it. The burden on the defendant to fully extend the handrail to entirely protect the upper parking area did not seem significant, according to the court of appeals. Moreover, the court also acknowledged that it was possible that other remedies also existed to possibly protect people from a fall. Since it was possible that the danger, although open and obvious, might have been easily alleviated, the Court of Appeals held that Mr. West was not entitled to summary judgment. Instead, the court took the position that evidence could be presented that the foreseeability of the harm outweighed the burden of preventing it. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court.

Plaintiffs considering possible negligence lawsuits often face serious concerns that they will be blamed for their own accidents and precluded from recovery because the dangers they encountered are open and obvious. In such circumstances, it is important to remember that defendants cannot entirely insulate themselves from liability by claiming that a plaintiff knew of a danger. When the danger is significant, and the burden to remedy it is minor, a defendant may be liable even when the danger is open and obvious. Experienced premises liability attorney Eric Beasley can assist you in evaluating whether the danger you faced was so serious as to create a duty even if it was open and obvious. For more information, contact the Law Office of Eric Beasley today at 615-859-2223.

Related Blog Posts:

Who is Liable for Injuries Resulting from Open and Obvious Conditions? – Goodwin v. Al J. Schneider Co., Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, November 17, 2016

Tennessee Court Finds Lack of Knowledge of Dangerous Condition Sufficient For Summary Judgment, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, July 7, 2016

What Constitutes a Known Dangerous Condition in Tennessee?, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, June 7, 2016