Tennessee Courts Limit Liability for Property Owners With Minimal Control Over Day To Day Activities

Premise liability is a common issue of concern for many property owners. By allowing tenants, guests, or customers onto one’s property, property owners inherently take on a degree of liability for injuries or accidents that may befall these third parties.  However, the doctrine of premise liability must have limits – property owners cannot be held legally responsible for every bad act that might occur, especially when such incidents happen to be unpredictable.  This is particularly true in the case of landlords or property owners who may not be physically present on the property and have entrusted much of its care and use to tenants or other parties. A recent case in the Tennessee Court of Appeals considered whether tort actions could be maintained against property owners who had only minimal control over the actions leading up to the tort claims.

In Choate v. Vanderbilt University, an ex-wife brought a wrongful death claim against several parties in relation to the death of her former husband.  Mr. Cox was a patient receiving dialysis treatments for end-stage renal disease at the Vanderbilt Dialysis Clinic.  Although Vanderbilt technically owned the property where the clinic was located, a separate company, Bio-Medical Applications of Tennessee, Inc, operated the clinic and it was Bio-Medical employees who assisted Mr. Cox when he visited.  While at the clinic in June 2009, Mr. Cox was set to have his weight taken with the assistance of Bio-Medical employees.  Mr. Cox was in a wheelchair due to an amputated leg and had been instructed to seek employee assistance while moving around the clinic.  After going to the bathroom, Mr. Cox proceeded to the scale to weight himself without notifying employees of his need for help. While attempting to get on the scale, Mr. Cox fell backward and suffered severe head injuries. Despite surgery, he remained unresponsive and died several weeks later.

Approximately a year after his death, Ms. Choate filed a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of herself and her son alleging negligence claims and premise liability. She sued both Vanderbilt and Bio-Medical.  In response, Vanderbilt filed a motion for summary judgment, alleging that it owed no duty to Mr. Cox in connection with his activities at the clinic as it was not operating the clinic at the time.  The court granted the motion, finding that Vanderbilt was not liable for premise liability or negligence because there was no evidence that Vanderbilt exercised control over the care of Mr. Cox at the clinic or the operation of the weight scale. Ms. Choate appealed, arguing that her claims against Vanderbilt were improperly dismissed.

On appeal, the Tennessee Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court decision. It noted that liability on the part of Vanderbilt required that the university owed a duty of care to Mr. Cox. However, it could find no basis for such a duty. The Court noted that Bio-Medical ran the clinic and it was Bio-Medical employees who worked at the clinic and assisted Mr. Cox. Accordingly, there was no evidence that Vanderbilt was in any way responsible for Mr. Cox and his care. Likewise, the Court affirmed that while Vanderbilt could owe a duty as a property owner of the premises where Mr. Cox’s injury occurred, in this situation, Vanderbile had “parted control of the premises” but allowing Bio-Medical to run the clinic and had no control over the area where Mr. Cox was injured, nor any control over the weight scale. Accordingly, the Court determined that there was no viable premise liability claim.

While premise liability must be a concern for any property owner, this case makes clear that such liability is not unlimited. Where a property owner essentially cedes control to another company or individual to manage and control the property, the liability and prospect for a lawsuit is significantly diminished.  If you are a property owner facing a premise liability claim, or an injured plaintiff contemplating the appropriate parties to sue, personal injury attorney Eric Beasley can assist you in evaluating whether a premise liability claim is likely to be successful.  For more information on seeking redress and compensation for your injuries, contact the Law Office of Eric Beasley today at 615-859-2223.

Related Blog Posts:

Pushing the Limits of Premise Liability and Gun Safety – SB 1736, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, February 3, 2016

Do Curbs For Wheelchair Ramps Constitute Dangerous Conditions in Tennessee?, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, January 27, 2016

The Role of Personal Injury Attorneys in Helping Slip and Fall Victims, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, February 15, 2013

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