Under Tennessee law, summary judgment is a ruling that is reserved only for those cases where there are no disputes of material fact, and no way for the plaintiff or defendant to succeed in light of the facts that have been presented. Because the standard is so high, summary judgment is only rarely granted, and most cases are left for the jury to decide. Sometimes, however, courts may incorrectly read the facts, and believe that there is less dispute than there really is. When this happens, summary judgment can be granted inappropriately, as in a recent premises liability case.
In this case, A.S. sued S.S. for injuries that she incurred while catering an event at S.S.’s home. As part of the event, the caterers were required to use a back entrance and set of steps when coming in and out of the home. A.S. went up and down these steps several times over the course of the evening, in the light, without issue. However, at the end of the night, she descended the steps in the dark holding onto a railing. A.S. could not see the railing and did not notice that it had ended. As she leaned forward to continue to grab onto it, she fell forward and down the stairs, severely injuring herself. A.S. filed claims against S.S. alleging that S.S. had been negligent in failing to properly light the stairs and fix the guardrail. In response, S.S. initially argued that the stairs had been lit and that the area was not dangerous when A.S. descended.
Later on, after discovery was completed, S.S. moved for summary judgment and argued that, in fact, the lights had been off and the time of the accident and that A.S. was negligent for failing to turn them on before she descended the steps. The trial court agreed and granted the summary judgment motion. A.S. appealed.
On appeal, the court first turned to the lower court’s ruling that there was no evidence to suggest that S.S. owed a duty to A.S. A.S. argued that there were disputed facts because it was unclear whether the lights were on or off the night of the accident, and there was a dispute as to what S.S. knew regarding the broken railing. Moreover, A.S. also argued that there was no evidence that she was responsible for the accident occurring. Unlike in other Tennessee cases, A.S. did not know the layout of S.S.’s home, and did not know how to turn on the lights to the steps in the event they had been turned off. It appeared possible that the home might not even have had lights that could be turned on — a fact that remained to be determined.
The appeals court also noted that S.S. knew that the catering staff, including A.S., would be using the stairs in the dark and still failed to turn on the lights for them. According to the court this also raised a question of whether S.S. had violated a duty to A.S. Finally, the appeals court raised the issue that even if the lights could have been turned on and A.S. had been negligent in failing to do so, the lights were not the only cause of A.S.’s fall. Rather, the broken railing had also contributed to the fall and the lower court had not addressed this issue. In total, the appeals court reversed the lower court and sent the case back for further proceedings.
This case is a good reminder that summary judgment is an exceptionally hard standard to effectively meet and can be expected only when the facts of the case are largely undisputed and in one party’s favor. This does not mean that clients should not endeavor to get rid of cases early through summary judgment proceedings, but that they will need the assistance of an experienced litigator to pull together the appropriate facts and arguments. If you are involved in litigation and looking for an attorney who can fight for your rights at every step in a dispute premises liability attorney Eric Beasley can help you craft an effective litigation strategy. For more information, contact the Law Office of Eric Beasley today at 615-859-2223.
Related Blog Posts:
Tennessee Court Finds Homeowner Not Responsible for Worker’s Fall, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, March 20, 2018.
Tennessee Court Holds No Duty to Keep Parking Spots Safe, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, December 15, 2017.
Tennessee Court Rejects Claim that Doorframe Was Dangerous Condition, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, November 9, 2017.