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Tennessee Court Grants Summary Judgment When No Risk Could Have Been Anticipated

staircasePremises liability and negligence claims arise when property owners have knowledge of circumstance or conditions on their property that could potentially cause harm, but they do not do anything to address those risks. While knowledge or awareness of a risk can be broadly interpreted, courts have consistently held that property owners should not be held liable for conditions that they could not have anticipated would cause harm. Thus, when a stair breaks unexpectedly, without reason, the owner of the stairs usually will not be at fault. Similarly, as discussed in the case below, when a restaurant owner has never had problems with the safety of a handrail before, and a fall occurs, the restaurant owner will not be held responsible unless he had some indication that the injury and fall could happen.

In this recent case before the Tennessee Court of Appeals, M.C. sued after attending a Christmas party at Salsa Cocina Mexicana Restaurant. When M.C. was walking upstairs to join the party, she noticed that the handrail she was using was covered in lights and garlands for Christmas, and she had difficulty getting a good grip on the rail. She did not notice whether the other handrail was covered in garlands, and, in fact, it was not. M.C. did not mention this problem to restaurant staff. On her way down the stairs while leaving the party, M.C. tried to grab onto the handrail to step down a stair but grabbed only the garland instead and lost her balance. She fell, resulting in a femoral fracture to her leg that required a cast and, later, surgery. M.C. sued the restaurant for damages from the fall. She argued that the restaurant created a dangerous condition when it covered up the handrail in Christmas decorations.

During discovery, the owners of the restaurant testified that they had been covering the handrail in garlands for over 15 years and had never before had a problem. They also testified that the other handrail on the stairs was not covered in garlands and would have been a way to hold on. According to the restaurant owners, no one had ever previously fallen down the stairs at their restaurants, and they had no reason to believe that the handrails, covered or not, were dangerous or created a risk of harm. Based on this testimony, the restaurant moved for summary judgment, arguing that M.C. was unable to provide evidence that the restaurant owners had any notice of a dangerous or defective condition on their property. The trial court agreed and granted the motion for summary judgment. M.C. appealed.

On appeal, M.C. argued that it was possible that jurors could have found that the restaurant handrail constituted a known dangerous condition. The court of appeals noted that while property owners have a responsibility to exercise care in protecting their patrons, they do not have a responsibility to remove or avoid conditions when they could not have anticipated that any risk of harm would arise, or when they could not have discovered the dangerous condition. Here, the evidence presented by M.C. did not show that the stairs were, in fact, dangerous. She could not show that they were deteriorating, broken, or defective, or that decorating them with garlands would create any dangers for patrons. Indeed, the court noted that Tennessee courts have previously held that when a business has undertaken certain actions (such as decorating handrails) without causing any prior injury, for many years, this is evidence that a dangerous condition did not exist. The Court of Appeals concluded that it was not foreseeable that someone like M.C. would find it difficult to use the handrails with the garlands present or choose not to use the handrail that was not decorated and then fall. Since there was no evidence to show that the restaurant knew there was a risk of injury with the decorated handrail, the Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s grant of summary judgment.

In Tennessee, it is not enough to show that an injury is possible due to a condition on another party’s property. Instead, plaintiffs must show that the injury is probable and that the owner is aware that the probability for harm exists. If you have been injured by defective conditions at another party’s home, business, or other facility, it is imperative that you gather evidence to show that the owners should have known that an injury was likely to occur. This may include photographs, statements from witnesses or third parties, or records from others who have previously been injured. Trial-tested premises liability attorney Eric Beasley understands the importance of establishing the evidence necessary to convince a jury of your premises liability claim, and he will make sure that your trial strategy keeps this objective in mind. If you have recently been in an accident and are uncertain about your rights, contact the Law Office of Eric Beasley today at 615-859-2223.

Related Blog Posts:

Tennessee Court Finds No Claim of Emotional Distress Exists for Property Damage, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, April 6, 2017

Tennessee Court Emphasizes That Dangerous Conditions Must Cause Actual Harm, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, February 3, 2016

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