In many Tennessee personal injury cases, the duties of one party to another are clearly defined. For instance, a landlord owes specific duties to a tenant, and a doctor owes certain duties to a patient. In other circumstances, however, the exact duties owed by one party to another are not concretely established and must be determined by reviewing the actions of the parties and the promises made. This was the case in a recent home inspector lawsuit reviewed by the Tennessee Supreme Court.
In this home defect case, D.U. sought to buy a home in Franklin, Tennessee. With the help of his brother, he hired a home inspector to inspect a possible home. The home inspector noted issues with some flooring on the deck of the home but did not report any other problems. The home owners agreed to replace the deck flooring and did so prior to the sale. Shortly after D.U. purchased the home, he hosted a party at his house. C.G. was on the deck of the house when the railing against which he was leaning collapsed, causing C.G. to fall and resulting in severe injuries. C.G. originally sued D.U., the previous home owner, the contractor who repaired the flooring, the home inspector, and the home inspection franchise. Eventually, the case was reduced to claims against the home inspector and the home inspection franchise.
C.G. alleged negligence against the home inspector for failing to exercise reasonable care in conducting his inspection and failing to notice the problems with the deck railing, including that it did not meet building inspection codes. Shortly after discovery was completed, the home inspector and his franchise moved for summary judgment, arguing that as a matter of law, they did not owe a duty to a third party like C.G. The trial court agreed and granted summary judgment. The Court of Appeals agreed and affirmed the lower court’s decision. C.G. then appealed.
In reviewing the case, the Tennessee Supreme Court first held that C.G. could bring a claim for negligent inspection if he could establish that the home inspector owed a duty to C.G. and that the other elements of a negligence claim were met. The Supreme Court then went on to determine that it was possible for a home inspector to owe a duty to a third party for a negligent inspection, disagreeing with the lower courts. It determined that under a tort claim for negligent performance of an undertaking, a party that undertakes to render services to someone that are for the protection of a third party has a duty to exercise reasonable care in undertaking such services. However, a duty may only be imposed to the extent it is assumed by the party. For example, when a home inspector undertakes a safety inspection, his duty only extends as far as that inspection.
Here, C.G. alleged that the home inspector violated a duty because he did not notice that the home’s railing failed to comply with applicable building codes. However, under Tennessee law, home inspectors are not building code inspectors and are not required to check for building code violations. Thus, a safety inspection would not incorporate a review of building codes. Since C.G. alleged a duty that went beyond what the home inspector agreed to do and the services he provided, the Tennessee Supreme Court held that C.G. was trying to impose a duty on the home inspector that went beyond the services he agreed to undertake, which was not consistent with Tennessee law. Accordingly, it affirmed the grant of summary judgment to the home inspector, but for different reasons.
Establishing a duty for individuals or services that fall outside established legal relationships can be difficult. It requires a careful consideration of exactly which duty was imposed and whether that duty is reasonable in light of the circumstances. As with the case above, a failure to correctly define the duty at issue can make or break a case. Tennessee personal injury attorney Eric Beasley can work closely with you to understand the duties that might be at issue in your case, and to make sure those duties are properly defined. For more information or to discuss the circumstances of your case, contact the Law Office of Eric Beasley today at 615-859-2223.
Related Blog Posts:
Tennessee Court of Appeals Upholds Finding That Dog Owner Is Not Liable for Bite, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, October 20, 2017.
Tennessee Courts Consider When a Party Can Be Held Liable for an Agent’s Negligence, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, October 12, 2016.
Do Curbs For Wheelchair Ramps Constitute Dangerous Conditions In Tennessee?, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, January 27, 2016.