COVID-19 Update: We are open and serving our clients. Learn More >>>

Tennessee Convenience Store Customer’s Claim for Damages After Fall in Parking Lot Should Not Have Been Dismissed on Summary Judgment

Proving liability in a Knoxville slip and fall case can be difficult. The landowner or store operate predictably blames the plaintiff for the fall in most cases, denying any liability for their own negligence.

During the pretrial phase of the litigation, the trial court is often called upon to decide whether the plaintiff has enough evidence to take the case to trial in front of a jury. Unless there is a genuine issue of material fact appropriate for the consideration of the jury, the case may be dismissed prior to trial.

In many cases, it is the defendant who creates and maintains custody of such evidence – such as video surveillance, witness statements, photographs, and the like. Because this evidence is so vitally important to the plaintiff in building his or her negligence case, there can be serious consequences for a defendant who “loses” such evidence.

Facts of the Case

In a case recently considered on appeal, the plaintiff was a woman who allegedly slipped and fell at a gas station/convenience store in Dandridge. She filed a premises liability lawsuit against the store’s owner, seeking to recover financial compensation for her medical expenses and other associated damages cause by the fall. In her complaint, the plaintiff asserted that her fall was caused by a gasoline spill in the defendant’s parking lot and that the defendant was aware or should have been aware of the dangerous condition but had failed to properly clean the area. The defendant answered the plaintiff’s complaint by insisting that the plaintiff’s fall was due to nothing but her own negligence.

The Circuit Court for Knox County granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, ruling that the plaintiff had failed to submit a triable issue of fact as to whether the plaintiff had caused, created, and/or should have discovered the condition that allegedly caused the plaintiff’s fall and resulting personal injuries.

Decision of the Court

The Court of Appeals of Tennessee at Knoxville reversed the trial court’s order granting summary judgment to the defendant and remanded the case for further proceedings. In so holding, the court noted that another customer had witnessed the plaintiff’s accident but that this customer’s contact information had been lost by the defendant. Video surveillance of the accident had likewise been lost by the defendant “due to an alleged power surge and hard drive failure.” During the summary judgment proceedings in the lower court, the plaintiff had raised the issue of spoliation and had argued that the defendant should not have been allowed to move forward on its motion for summary judgment due to its actions. The trial court rejected this argument.

On appeal, the plaintiff again argued that the trial court should have imposed an inference of negligence on the defendant due to its spoliation of evidence. While the reviewing court did not disturb the trial court’s ruling regarding inferring negligence against the defendant, it did find that, because the defendant had control of – and lost – two important pieces of evidence, there should be some consequence. In the court’s opinion, the proper course was to allow the plaintiff to testify “broadly” about her interaction with the missing witness, including the content of their conversation. (Under normal circumstances, the hearsay rule would likely have prevented such testimony regarding the witness’s out-of-court statements in front of the jury at trial.)

Contact a Premises Liability Attorney

If you have been hurt due to a store owner’s neglect, you may be entitled to substantial compensation for your medical expenses, lost earnings, and pain and suffering. To schedule a no-cost, obligation-free consultation with an established Knoxville slip and fall attorney, call the Hartsoe Law Firm at 865-524-5657. Please be mindful that negligence claims must be filed within a certain time period, or else a plaintiff’s right to seek compensation may be deemed waived.

Contact Information