In a recent opinion, Grogan v. Uggla (Tenn. Ct. App. September 22, 2015), the Tennessee Court of Appeals considered the issue of a home inspector’s liability for a guest’s injury following the collapse of the homeowner’s second-story deck railing. In Grogan, the homeowner contracted with an inspector to perform a visual inspection before his purchase of the house. The home inspector noted a warped deck, which was subsequently replaced by the previous owner before the sale. One month later, when the homeowner’s guest leaned against the deck railing, it broke away and caused him to fall two stories, resulting in serious injuries. An inspection following the accident revealed that the deck had been improperly constructed.
The plaintiff brought personal injury claims against the homeowner, the home inspector, and others for negligence. The home inspector filed a motion for summary judgment, contending that he did not owe a duty to the plaintiff, who was a guest of the homeowner. The trial court found in favor of the home inspector, and the plaintiff appealed.
To prevail on a negligence claim, the plaintiff must establish the following elements: (1) a duty of care owed by the defendant to the plaintiff; (2) conduct below the applicable standard of care that amounts to a breach of that duty; (3) an injury or loss; (4) cause in fact; and (5) proximate, or legal cause. Whether a defendant owes a duty of care to the plaintiff is a question of law for the court. In Grogan, the basic question for the court was whether the home inspector owed a duty to a guest of the homeowner.
The court of appeals held that § 324A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts did not apply to impose a duty on the home inspector. Specifically, the court found that the home inspector had no reason to suspect that the inspection was necessary for the protection of a third person, as required by § 324A. This was supported by the contract between the homeowner and inspector limiting liability and the fact that the inspection was not a safety inspection under Tennessee law but rather a visual inspection primarily used as the basis for bargaining over the terms of purchase.
The court also analyzed the element of duty under common law, which requires the court to consider whether such a relationship exists between the parties that the community will impose a legal obligation for the protection of the plaintiff at the hands of the defendant. The court balances whether the foreseeable probability and gravity of the harm posed by the defendant’s conduct outweigh the burden upon the defendant to engage in alternative conduct that would have prevented the harm. The Grogan court answered the question in the negative, finding that the harm was unforeseeable based on the fact that the inspector has no control over whether the repairs will be undertaken. In addition, requiring home inspectors to alter their course of conduct would increase the cost, take longer to perform, and may only be potentially effective. Based on these considerations, the court held that the home inspector did not owe a duty to the guest and was therefore not liable for his injury.
The attorneys at Martin Heller Potempa & Sheppard understand that premises liability cases require careful attention to detail, preparation, and legal experience. Our Nashville attorneys are committed to helping accident victims involved in slip and falls, motor vehicle collisions, medical malpractice, and others. Contact our offices to discuss your case at (615) 800-7096 or online.