By Christopher M. Myatt

Lurks v. City of Newbern, No. W2016-01532-COA-R3-CV
(Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 26, 2017)

The Tennessee Court of Appeals recently affirmed a trial court’s verdict dismissing a plaintiff’s premises liability claim for failure to establish the element of causation. The plaintiff had been a resident of Newbern, Tenn., for more than 30 years. She and her husband owned a vacant lot and rental house on the same street. One evening, she fell on the sidewalk in front of her home. She sustained injuries as a result of the fall and filed suit against the City of Newbern, the mayor and Dyer County under the Tennessee Governmental Tort Liability Act, claiming that the dangerous and defective condition of the sidewalk caused her to fall.

The plaintiff testified that she and her husband complained to the city several times about the dangerous condition of the sidewalk before her fall, thereby putting them on notice. She further testified at the bench trial that she did not know what caused her to fall or whether her foot hit anything to cause her to fall. Photographs supported her testimony that the sidewalk was in a defective condition, leaving little to dispute that the city was responsible for its maintenance.

After hearing all the evidence, the trial court issued a memorandum opinion finding that the sidewalk was defective and that the city had notice of its defectiveness, but the court noted the plaintiff “failed to causally connect her injury to the defective condition of the sidewalk.” Thus, her complaint was dismissed.

The appellate court affirmed, relying on long-established case law that negligence is not to be presumed from the mere happening of an accident. “A plaintiff will be prevented from establishing negligence when he, either personally or with the use of outside witnesses, is unable to identify what caused the fall.” The plaintiff cannot speculate as to the cause of a fall. Testimony along the lines of “I was just walking and down I went” is insufficient to prevail in a premises liability case. The burden of proving causation of a fall remains on the plaintiff.

 

Chris is a partner in Spicer Rudstrom’s Memphis office. His practice is concentrated primarily in the areas of premises liability, business and commercial representation, products liability and insurance coverage.