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Tennessee Not Liable for College Student’s Additional Hearing Loss

In a personal injury claimed based on negligence, a plaintiff must prove that she was owed a duty by the defendant, that the defendant breached that duty, and that said breach was the proximate cause of her injury or less. It is not enough to show the defendant may have been careless or even reckless in performing a duty. Among other factors, negligence is the “proximate cause” of an injury under Tennessee law when the defendant’s conduct “could have reasonably been foreseen or anticipated by a person of ordinary intelligence and prudence” to harm another.

Fire Alarm Not the “Proximate Cause” of Student’s Injuries

Unfortunately, this strict standard means some victims are denied justice by the courts. For example, the Tennessee Court of Appeals recently vacated a lower court’s award of over $200,000 to a hearing-impaired college student who suffered additional loss after a false alarm exposed in her dormitory exposed her to excessive noise.

The plaintiff in this case was a freshman at a public university in Tennessee. The school required all first-year students to live on campus. The plaintiff suffered from significant hearing impairment: At the time of her enrollment, she demonstrated approximate hearing loss of 50 percent in her right ear and 75 percent in her left ear, respectively.

Because of the plaintiff’s disability, the school provided her with a single dormitory room near an elevator. The school outfitted the room with a special fire alarm system that produced a “high pitch” sound, activated a strobe light, and shook her bed. The room also contained a standard fire alarm that did not trigger these additional devices.

One morning around 6:15 a.m., the plaintiff said she awoke to hear a “high-decibel pitch going off.” It was the dormitory’s regular fire alarm, not the plaintiff’s special alarm, which had been active for approximately 15 minutes after going off “spontaneously” and not due to an actual fire. Due to this prolonged exposure, the plaintiff said she felt “piercing pain” and constant ringing in her ears. The plaintiff’s doctor later determined the fire alarm had “worsened” her hearing loss.

The plaintiff eventually filed a claim with the Tennessee Claims Commission, a state agency that hears any negligence complaints against state agencies, which included the plaintiff’s university. Last year the claims commissioner issued a judgment in favor of the plaintiff and awarded her approximately $209,000 in damages. The state appealed.

The Tennessee Court of Appeals reversed the claims commissioner’s award. While the court upheld the commissioner’s finding that the fire alarm was the “cause in fact” of the plaintiff’s additional hearing loss, it was not the “proximate cause.” The court said there was insufficient evidence that the university “should have known that subjecting [the plaintiff] to an alarm at 75 decibels would cause her to suffer additional hearing loss or any other type of injury.” The court noted the fire alarm complied with applicable safety standards and the plaintiff had never informed the school that she was “particularly susceptible” to loud noises.

A Knoxville Personal Injury Lawyer Can Help

Negligence is often difficult to prove even in cases where a defendant’s liability might seem obvious. That is why a Clinton personal injury lawyer is invaluable whenever you are seeking damages against another party. Contact the offices of Fox & Farley, Attorneys at Law, if you need to speak with someone right away about your personal injury case.

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