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Tennessee Court of Appeals Reverses Summary Judgment to Retail Store in Customer’s Slip and Fall Case

Those who operate retail establishments such as stores or shoppes, owners of restaurants and bars, and other businesses are responsible for providing a reasonably safe environment to those who come onto their premises for a business purpose. When this duty is breached, a Knoxville premises liability lawsuit may result.

In such a case, the plaintiff has the burden of proving, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the defendant’s breach of the duty of care was the proximate cause of his or her injuries. If this burden is met, the plaintiff may be awarded substantial money damages for his or her pain and suffering, lost wages, and medical expenses.

Premises liability claims must be promptly and thoroughly investigated, preferably by a person with the plaintiff’s best interests in mind. If an investigation is left up to the defendant and its insurance company, it may be difficult for the plaintiff to prove his or her case in court later on. For this reason, it is important to talk to an attorney as soon as possible if you have been hurt on someone else’s property.

Facts of the Case

In a recent case, the plaintiff was a woman who allegedly slipped and fell in antifreeze that had been spilled in the parking lot outside the defendant retail store. Earlier, a different customer had slipped and fallen in the same puddle of antifreeze and had reported the incident to the manager on duty. The manager had walked out to the parking lot, viewed the puddle, and went back into the store with the intent of getting a bag of kitty litter to pour over the spill in an attempt to clean up the antifreeze. Instead of returning to the parking lot, however, the manager stayed inside the store to help an employee complete a transaction. In the meantime, the plaintiff left the store with her purchases, slipped and fell in the antifreeze, and was hurt.

The plaintiff (joined by her husband) filed suit against the store and several other defendants who held property interests in the parking lot, asserting a claim for premises liability. The defendant store filed a motion for summary judgment, insisting that it was entitled to a judgment as a matter of law because it did not owe the plaintiff a duty to correct the spill or to warn her about the dangerous condition because the store neither owned nor operated the parking lot in which the accident occurred. The Circuit Court for Knox County granted the defendant store’s motion, and the plaintiff appealed.

Decision of the Court

The Court of Appeals of Tennessee at Knoxville reversed the circuit court’s decision. While acknowledging that the defendant store had a lease agreement with another party in which it was specified that the other party was responsible for maintenance of the parking lot, the reviewing court found that summary judgment to the defendant store was inappropriate given that the defendant had exercised control over the area in which the plaintiff fell by doing thing such as clearing debris and cleaning spills caused by customers. Because the defendant store had exercised this level of control over the area in question without notifying the party whom it alleged was responsible for maintenance of the lot, the court of appeals disagreed with the lower court’s determination that the defendant store was entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

In the specific situation at bar, the court noted that the defendant store was on notice of the condition that caused the plaintiff’s fall and that it was foreseeable that another customer might slip and fall in the antifreeze puddle that had been reported to the manager. The determination of whether the defendant store’s conduct (specifically, its employee’s decision to attend to other tasks rather than crafting a barrier of the area or otherwise alerting customers of the danger) was best left to the trier of fact, in the appellate court’s view.

To Speak to an Attorney About Your Personal Injury Case

If you have suffered serious personal injuries because of a dangerous condition at a retail store or other business, you should talk to a lawyer about your legal rights. For a free consultation with a knowledgeable Knoxville premises liability attorney, call the Hartsoe Law Firm at 865-524-5657 and set up an appointment. We handle cases through east Tennessee, including Knoxville, Maryville, Sevierville, and Oak Ridge.

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