In a recent case, the Court of Appeals of Tennessee examined whether or not a plaintiff’s injuries were reasonably foreseeable in order to establish premises liability in a wrongful death claim. In Singletary v. Gatlinburlier, Inc. (Tenn. Ct. App. Apr. 25, 2016), a customer fainted and fell into an antique glass display case while visiting a retail store in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. The glass in the display case shattered, piercing her chest and tragically causing her death. Her husband sued the retail store and the mall in which it operated for negligence. The trial court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, finding that the injuries were not reasonably foreseeable.
To prevail on a premises liability claim based upon negligence, a plaintiff must establish: (1) a duty of care owed by the defendant to the plaintiff; (2) conduct by the defendant that was below the standard of care, amounting to a breach of a duty; (3) an injury or loss; and (4) actual and proximate causation. The doctrine of res ipsa loquitur permits an inference that the defendant was negligent in the absence of an explanation from the defendant, as a result of the circumstances surrounding an accident or injury. Although a plaintiff relying on the doctrine benefits from an inference that the defendant breached its duty, the plaintiff must still establish the elements of duty, injury, and causation.
In Singletary, the defendants provided evidence that the antique display case at issue was about 30 years old at that time, and it had withstood collisions from baby carriages, children leaning against and pushing on it, and other substantial impacts. The defendants also testified that the glass was cleaned regularly and did not appear to be fragile or insubstantial, and there was no expectation that the glass would break. In addition, the defendants argued that nothing about the condition of the store caused the victim to fall.
On appeal, the court found that the defendants’ evidence demonstrated the use of reasonable care and a lack of notice of any defect in the glass display case. As a result, the court found that res ipsa loquitur did not apply. Nevertheless, the plaintiff argued that since the defendants knew the display case was not shatterproof, a reasonable person would have anticipated that it was possible for it to break and create a risk of physical harm.
The duty of a store owner is one to exercise reasonable care with regard to social guests and business invitees on the premises. Reasonable care involves the concept of foreseeability. The plaintiff must prove that the injury was a reasonably foreseeable probability and that some action within the defendant’s power more probably than not would have prevented the injury. In Singletary, the appeals court found that the evidence did not indicate that the incident was a reasonably foreseeable probability, and thus no duty existed. Consequently, the court found that the defendants were not liable for the victim’s death.
While there are some premises liability claims that may be difficult to prove, an experienced personal injury attorney can develop the evidence and present the facts of the case persuasively to a judge or jury. The Nashville injury lawyers at Martin Heller Potempa & Sheppard recognize that premises liability cases require thorough preparation, meticulous attention to detail, and substantial courtroom experience. We can represent victims of slip and falls, motor vehicle collisions, medical malpractice, and other accidents caused by negligence. To schedule a consultation with one of our attorneys, contact us at (615) 800-7096 or online.