Tennessee Cabin Owner and Management Company Not Liable For Defective Stairs When There Was No Prior Notice of Dangerous Condition

Posted on Dec 6 2014 3:23PM by Attorney, Jason A. Lee

The Tennessee Court of Appeals recently decided a premises liability case involving allegedly defective stairs at a cabin in the Brenda Y. Hannah v. Sherwood Forest Rentals, LLC, No. E2014-00082-COA-R3-CV, 2014 WL 6250692 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2014) decision.  In this case the plaintiff fell while descending a set of wooden stairs at a rental cabin in Sevier County, Tennessee.  As the plaintiff descended the stairs, a step flipped up, causing her to fall.  She ultimately sustained a fracture in her right foot and had a severe left ankle sprain.  Apparently, the evidence later showed there were improperly fastened nails to the top of the step which caused the wood plank to come loose.    


The plaintiff filed suit against the property owners and the property management company, Sherwood.  The Trial Court dismissed this case on summary judgment finding that neither Sherwood nor the property owners had any constructive notice of the dangerous condition.  This issue was appealed to the Tennessee Court of Appeals.  This case was filed on or after July 1, 2011 and, therefore, the standard for summary judgment for this case is found in the newer statute, T.C.A. § 20-16-101, which is generally a more favorable standard for summary judgment then the previous Hannan v. Alltel Publishing standard.  Specifically, T.C.A. § 20-16-101 provides the new standard for summary judgment in Tennessee as follows: 


In motions for summary judgment in any civil action in Tennessee, the moving party who does not bear the burden of proof at trial shall prevail on its motion for summary judgment if it:

(1) Submits affirmative evidence that negates an essential element of the nonmoving party's claim; or

(2) Demonstrates to the court that the nonmoving party's evidence is insufficient to establish an essential element of the nonmoving party's claim.


Taking this into consideration, the court considered what the plaintiff would be required to prove in order to be successful in their case.  There really was no dispute in the Hannah case that there was a defective condition on the property.  That was clear.  However, there was no evidence that either of the defendants created or caused the defective condition (presumably the condition was created by the builder of the stairs).  As a result, the plaintiff, had to prove that the defendants had actual or constructive notice that the dangerous condition existed prior to her fall.  Hannah at 5.  There was absolutely no evidence presented that the defendants had actual knowledge of any prior incidents or complaints regarding the condition of the stairs.  As a result, the only avenue for the plaintiff to be successful under Tennessee law would be to “prove constructive notice by establishing that the condition existed for such a length of time or was of such a nature that Sherwood or the Hovells, in the exercise of reasonable care, should have become aware of it.”  Hannah at 5. 


In considering the evidence before the Court, the Court pointed out that the plaintiff’s family had actually stayed at the cabin for 24 hours prior to the incident.  None of the plaintiff’s family observed any problems with the stairs despite having gone up and down the stairs on multiple occasions.  Additionally, the plaintiff herself testified that she saw nothing wrong with the stairs prior to the time she fell.  Further, there were no reports of any issues with the stairs raised by any other individuals who visited this cabin.  Further, the housekeeping staff inspected the cabin the day prior to the incident.  These staff members are trained to inspect the premises for any dangerous conditions.  Additionally, the maintenance staff inspected the cabin at least once per month in the months leading up to the incident and no problem had been detected. 


As a result of all these facts, the Tennessee Court of Appeals summarized this evidence and found as follows: 


Similarly, here, Ms. Hannah produced no evidence to show that Sherwood or the Hovells should have discovered this stairway condition. There was no evidence to demonstrate how long the condition had existed or what caused it. No prior invitees upon the premises had noted a problem, including Ms. Hannah's family. The Sherwood housekeeping staff had regularly and recently cleaned the cabin, discovering no problem with the condition of the stairs. The Sherwood maintenance staff had regularly inspected the cabin and noted no issues. Further, Ms. Hannah herself had once traversed the stairs, encountering no difficulty. Considering these facts, we conclude that the trial court did not err in granting summary judgment to the defendants, based on the lack of material evidence from which a trier of fact could conclude that the defendants should have, in the exercise of reasonable care, discovered this condition. We therefore affirm the trial court's grant of summary judgment to the defendants.


This case once again shows how difficult it can be to be successful with a Tennessee premises liability case.  If the plaintiff does not have evidence that the defendant actually caused the condition or had actual knowledge of the condition, it is very difficult to prove constructive notice.  In this case, the fact the housekeeping staff had inspected the property on the day prior to check-in and that the management company inspected the premises on a monthly basis, was sufficient to establish that they did not have constructive notice.  There was no evidence from any other source that this was a condition that the defendants could have known about prior to the incident in question.  As a result, the case was dismissed and the dismissal was affirmed on appeal.


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TAGS: Summary Judgment, Tennessee Premises Liability
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Jason A. Lee is a Member of Burrow Lee, PLLC. He practices in all areas of defense litigation inside and outside of Tennessee.

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Jason A. Lee, Member of Burrow Lee, PLLC
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