The Tennessee Court of Appeals recently vacated a trial court’s directed verdict for defendants in a premises liability action, concluding there existed genuine issues of material fact as to whether the defendant homeowners were negligent.
The plaintiff was touring a rental house in Chattanooga owned by the defendants when she tripped on a step between two rooms. She brought a premises liability action in January 2012, alleging that the step was an unreasonably dangerous and defective condition that caused her fall and resulting injuries.
During the February 2013 trial, both parties presented expert testimony. The plaintiff’s expert opined that the step was a “trip hazard.” One defendant expert agreed that the step was a trip hazard, while the other stated that “all stairs are trip hazards.” Both parties presented photographs of the doorway, demonstrating that the step and the floors on either side are a very similar color. The trial court granted defendants’ motion for a directed verdict at the conclusion of proof, finding that it was reasonably foreseeable that the plaintiff would trip over the step, that the step was open and obvious, and that the defendants did not owe her a duty to warn of the condition of the step. The plaintiff appealed, arguing that the trial court erred in directing a verdict for the defendants.
The appellate court ultimately reversed, holding that the evidence established a genuine issue of material fact as to the defendants’ negligence. It therefore vacated the trial court’s judgment and remanded.
In order to establish a prima facie claim of negligence, or the failure to exercise reasonable care, a plaintiff must prove the following elements: (1) a duty of care owed by defendant to 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 plaintiff a duty of care is a question of law to be determined by the court.
To determine duty, the court balances the foreseeability and the gravity of the potential risk of harm to a plaintiff against the burden imposed on the defendant in protecting against that harm.
In this case, all three experts agreed that the single three-inch step did not violate the applicable building code in Chattanooga. Generally, an allegedly dangerous condition in compliance with a regulatory code is relevant but not conclusive on the question of a defendant’s negligence. However, a Chattanooga building official testified on cross-examination that he believed the step was a trip hazard.
The trial court found that the step’s hazard was open and obvious, which typically negates a duty to warn. But the appellate court disagreed. Nancy Brown testified that she did not see the step before she tripped on it. A defense expert testified that the step does not “have an obvious visual cue provided.” A plaintiff expert testified to the same.
The appeals court concluded that from the proof presented – including testimony of experts on both sides that the step was a “trip hazard,” the plaintiff’s testimony, the unusually short size of the single step between the two rooms, and the photographs of the accident scene – reasonable minds could differ as to whether the condition of the step was obvious. Similarly, a reasonable juror could reach more than one conclusion as to whether it was reasonably foreseeable under the circumstances presented that a person unfamiliar with the house could trip over the step.
Accordingly, the court vacated the trial court’s directed verdict for the defendants and remanded the case for further proceedings.
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