In a recent Tennessee premises liability case, the Court of Appeals addressed the issue of whether the defendants owed the plaintiff a duty after he was injured while voluntarily performing work on their property. In Reynolds v. Rich (Tenn. Ct. App. July 22, 2016), the plaintiff agreed to assist with the installation of a metal roof on the defendants’ house. During the installation, the plaintiff fell from the roof and suffered serious injuries, including skull fractures, a broken neck, shattered bones, and nerve damage to his face. Although no one knew what caused the plaintiff to fall from the roof, the plaintiff brought suit against the defendants for negligence. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants, finding that the plaintiff was a volunteer worker rather than an employee of the defendants, and there was no evidence that the defendants violated a duty to the plaintiff.
To establish a claim for negligence in Tennessee, a plaintiff is required to prove the following elements: (1) a duty of care owed by the defendant to the plaintiff; (2) conduct by the defendant falling below the standard of care, amounting to a breach of the duty; (3) an injury or loss; (4) causation in fact; and (5) proximate causation. In a premises liability case, a property owner has a duty to exercise reasonable care with regard to social guests or business invitees on the premises. The duty includes the responsibility to remove or warn against latent or hidden dangerous conditions on the premises of which the owner was aware, or should have been aware through the exercise of reasonable diligence.
Recently, Tennessee courts have held that a landowner’s duty may exist even when the injury-causing condition is open and obvious to the plaintiff. The Reynolds court explained that if a foreseeable and serious risk of harm posed by the defendant’s conduct, even if open and obvious, outweighs the burden on the defendant to engage in alternative conduct to avoid the harm, the defendant owes a duty of reasonable care to the plaintiff. This duty, however, does not include the responsibility to remove or warn against conditions from which no unreasonable risk was to be anticipated, or those that the property owner neither knew about nor could have discovered with reasonable care.
On appeal in Reynolds, the court held that it was clear that the reasonably foreseeable risk of harm from a possible fall while installing a roof outweighed the burden upon the defendants to engage in some alternative conduct to prevent such a risk. As a result, the defendant’s use of volunteers to install the roof gave rise to a duty of reasonable care to those volunteers, including the plaintiff. Having found a duty owed by the defendants to the plaintiff, the court held summary judgment was inappropriate at this stage of the litigation and allowed the plaintiff to continue his lawsuit.
Some injury cases involve complicated issues, which can be addressed with the assistance of a skilled trial lawyer. At Martin Heller Potempa & Sheppard, our Nashville premises liability attorneys have the experience and resources necessary to present your case persuasively to a judge or jury. We represent accident victims in a variety of injury claims, such as falls, car and motorcycle accidents, and more. Contact our offices by phone at (615) 800-7096 or online to discuss your case with an experienced attorney.