Premises liability is a legal concept that allows a property owner to be held responsible for certain injuries that occur on his or her land. In a February 7, 2017 decision, the Court of Appeals of Tennessee reviewed a personal injury action brought by a plaintiff who was injured at a restaurant. After the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant, the plaintiff appealed the ruling for review by the higher court.
In 2012, the plaintiff, who was in her early 70s, visited the defendant’s restaurant to attend a party on the second floor. The stairwell had railings on both the left and right sides of the stairs. The right-hand stair railing was decorated with garlands and Christmas lights, while the railing on the left side had no decorations on it. After the party ended, the plaintiff began to descend the stairs. When she reached for the handrail, she was unable to grasp the railing itself but instead grabbed only a handful of garland. Without the rail to steady herself, she fell down the stairs, suffering a femoral shaft fracture on her left leg that ultimately required surgery.
In Tennessee, property owners are required to exercise due care under all of the circumstances. This general duty of care imposes a responsibility to either remove or warn against any dangerous condition on the premises of which the property owner is actually aware or should be aware through the exercise of reasonable diligence. However, this does not include conditions from which no unreasonable risk was to be anticipated.
On appeal, the court explained the summary judgment standard for a moving party who does not bear the burden of proof at trial, i.e., the defendant. Specifically, judgment may be granted if the defendant affirmatively negates an essential element of the plaintiff’s claim or demonstrates that the plaintiff’s evidence at the summary judgment stage is insufficient to establish her claim or defense. The plaintiff, to survive summary judgment, must then demonstrate the existence of specific facts in the record that could lead a judge or jury to find in her favor.
In affirming summary judgment in favor of the defendant, the appeals court pointed to important evidence that was not refuted by the plaintiff. In particular, the defendant presented evidence that the stairway at issue was flanked by two handrails, only one of which was decorated in any way, and that the handrail containing the decorations had been similarly decorated for the past 15 years, and no person had ever fallen down the stairs as a result of the decorations. The court held that, regardless of the fact that the defendant created the condition that resulted in the plaintiff’s fall, there was no unreasonable risk that the defendant could have anticipated. Accordingly, the court upheld the lower court’s decision.
Some injury claims may be difficult to prove, but an experienced trial lawyer can present evidence of negligence persuasively to a jury or judge. At MHPS, our Nashville premises liability attorneys have the skill and dedication necessary to represent plaintiffs in a range of personal injury and wrongful death claims. Schedule an appointment to learn about your legal options by calling MHPS at (615) 800-7096 or contacting us online.