In the most recent in a series of premise liability cases that have recently come before the Tennessee Court of Appeals, the Court recently reversed a grant of summary judgment on a slip-and-fall accident case. The case centered on an issue common to many premise liability disputes: whether the defendant, Ruby Tuesday, had actual knowledge, or should have known, of a risk of harm to the plaintiff when she fell after slipping on water that melted off a bag of ice that the plaintiff has just received from the restaurant. While the lower court held that Ruby Tuesday could not have known of the water on the floor because it happened only when the Plaintiff attempted to leave, the appeals court held that the cause of the fall should be viewed more broadly.
Tennessee’s Governmental Tort Liability Act governs how and when government agencies can be held liable for torts that may occur on their property or that have been committed by their employees. Under the GTLA, government agencies are generally immune from suit when injuries result from the government doing its job, unless certain exceptions apply. One of those exceptions is for negligent acts or omissions of government employees acting within the scope of their employment. Recently, a prisoner brought a Tennessee injury case to determine whether cities and counties in Tennessee are liable for injuries that occur on prisoner work details.
In this recent case, S.E. was serving a sentence at the Coffee County jail in Tennessee, where he was assigned to a work detail that involved cleaning up public properties in the City of Manchester, Tennessee. S.E. fell off a pickup truck while on the job and injured his head. He sued both the City of Manchester and Coffee County for his injuries, medical expenses, and damages. Coffee County settled with S.E., but S.E. continued to pursue claims against the City of Manchester. In response, the City moved to dismiss S.E.’s complaint, arguing that it was immune from liability under the GTLA. The trial court agreed and dismissed the case. S.E. appealed.
On appeal, S.E. argued that under the exception to the GTLA for negligent acts by employees, the City was not immune from liability because a police officer with the City of Manchester was supervising the work detail at the time. The City countered by pointing to Tennessee Statute 41-2-123(d)(2), which provides that states, municipalities, and their employees are not liable to prisoners or a prisoner’s family for death or injuries sustained on work detail, other than for medical treatment due to the injury while the prisoner is in prison. Here, medical treatment had been provided to S.E. after his injury, and the City took the position that it was not liable for any additional claims. In response, S.E. argued that the GTLA took precedence over the statute identified by the City. After reviewing the two statutes, the Court of Appeals disagreed.
Premises 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.
Bringing claims in a Tennessee courtroom can be expensive. Getting a case ready for trial takes extensive preparation, discovery, and long days and nights thinking through the details of the case. This means that fees can add up, and lawyers may seem too expensive to consider. In these circumstances, some plaintiffs decide to go it alone in their case, acting as a pro se plaintiff, or a plaintiff without representation, in the courtroom. A recent case before the Tennessee Court of Appeals illustrates the complexity of bringing a premises liability lawsuit without an attorney and the care that must be taken in proving all of the elements of a negligence or failure to warn claim.
One of the most overlooked aspects of any negligence claim is the requirement that a plaintiff show that the danger or harm she experienced actually caused the injuries that were incurred. Often, when an accident or injury occurs, and a dangerous condition existed, we simply assume that the two are connected. In court, however, plaintiffs bear the burden of making this connection, and without it, a court will not find a defendant responsible.
When 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.
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.
Landowners and individuals who invite another person into their home owe their invitees a duty to protect them from unreasonably dangerous conditions. But what happens when an invitee is also aware of the dangerous condition and knowingly attempts to navigate it, but ultimately hurts him or herself? Is the landowner still liable for the injuries that occurred, or does the invitee take on liability because they willingly subjected themselves to such conditions? A recent case before the Supreme Court of Kentucky looks at liability when the danger is “open and obvious.”
In Goodwin v. Al J. Schneider Co., Mr. Goodwin was attending a convention at Galt House, owned by the defendant. On the second day of the convention, Mr. Goodwin slipped and fell while getting into the bathtub and injured his knee. The bathtub in his room did not have a bathmat, and the floor of the bathtub was quite slick. After his fall, the Galt House provided Mr. Goodwin with a bathmat, and he later learned that many of the other rooms at the Galt House already had bathmats. In response, Mr. Goodwin sued, arguing that the slick surface of his bathtub was a dangerous condition and that the Galt House knew it was dangerous because it provided other rooms with bathmats. By failing to put a bathmat in his room, Mr. Goodwin alleged that the Galt House knowingly failed to exercise reasonable care for his safety. In response, the Galt House moved for summary judgment, arguing that Mr. Goodwin was equally aware of the slick surface of the bathtub and should have exercised care himself. Since he did not do so, he was liable.
It is a well-established principle of the law that damages are, in most instances, for the jury to decide. When a plaintiff and a defendant have a jury trial, and a jury finds the defendant liable, the jury will then address the amount of damages that the plaintiff should receive. Typically, a jury’s award will follow logically from the evidence presented at trial, or the request for damages that the party has made. However, on some occasions, a jury’s damages may seem excessive, or too low, in relation to the evidence presented. When this happens, one or both parties may request to have the damages amount changed by arguing that the current amount is not supported by the material evidence. A recent case before the Tennessee Court of Appeals addressed a request for a damages reduction in a negligence case.
Many negligence cases arise out of a failure of one party to properly protect others. A party may choose to cut corners, thereby creating a dangerous product, or may knowingly fail to correct an existing problem in order to save money. In these circumstances, when another person is injured as a result of such conditions, a claim for negligence or even wrongful death is often proper. However, in other situations, accidents happen when no one individual or party is to blame. A condition may arise that could not have been foreseen, or a danger may be created of which no one previously knew. When this happens, although the injury or death may be significant, it may also be the case that no one defendant is to blame. A recent case before the Tennessee Court of Appeals holds that liability cannot be assigned to a defendant who simply had no knowledge of the dangerous condition that existed.
In Landrum, et al. v. Methodist Medical Center, et al., Ms. Landrum was visiting her mother at the Methodist Medical Center of Oak Ridge when she slipped and fell in a puddle of water on the fifth floor of the hospital. As a result of the fall, she fractured her patella and had to have several surgeries. Shortly thereafter, Ms. Landrum sued Methodist for her injuries. During depositions, Ms. Landrum acknowledged that she had not noticed the puddle when she was leaving the fifth floor, but she slipped on it 15 minutes later when she returned. She did not know how the puddle was created, how long it had been there, or from where it came. Methodist employees who were working on the fifth floor at the time of the accident testified that they did not notice the puddle until Ms. Landrum slipped, that no one had alerted them to the danger, and that they were not previously aware of it.
After discovery was over, Methodist filed a motion for summary judgment. The trial court granted the motion, finding that Ms. Landrum had provided no evidence to show that Methodist had any knowledge of the puddle, or the dangerous condition it caused, prior to Ms. Landrum’s fall. The trial court concluded that Methodist could not be held liable for a danger of which it was not aware. Ms. Landrum appealed.