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Can I Win a Personal Injury Claim Even If I Don’t Know How the Accident Happened?


The key to any personal injury claim is establishing the defendant’s negligence. Sometimes this is pretty straightforward, such as a driver running a red light and hitting another car. But negligence is obviously much more difficult to establish when nobody witnessed the specific act that caused the plaintiff’s injury.

TN Supreme Court: No Evidence Linking House Fire to Contractor Negligence

Consider a recent decision from the Tennessee Supreme Court. In this case, a couple hired a general contractor to build their house. As is typical with such projects, the general contractor hired a number of subcontractors to complete specific work. Here, one of those subcontractors was tasked with installing hardwood floors.

On Halloween night of 2012 the house, still under construction, was destroyed by a fire. Nobody saw the fire start. The plaintiffs, traumatized by the loss of their home, blamed the general contractor and flooring subcontractor. More specifically, they said oil-soaked rags left by the subcontractor likely ignited the fire. They further alleged the general contractor was negligent in failing to properly supervise the subcontractor’s work.

In the absence of more concrete evidence, the plaintiffs relied on a common law rule known by the Latin phrase “res ipsa loquitur,” literally translated as, “the thing speaks for itself.” Basically, the plaintiffs argued a jury could infer the defendants’ negligence by the simple fact a fire occurred while the general contractor had charge of the site.

A trial court judge rejected this argument and granted summary judgment to both defendants. In 2015, the Tennessee Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment with respect to the general contractor but held the plaintiffs could proceed against the subcontractor. But in an decision published on April 5 of this year, the state Supreme Court reinstated the trial court’s original decision dismissing the plaintiffs’ lawsuit outright.

The main problem, the Supreme Court explained, was that the plaintiffs failed to produce sufficient evidence eliminating “other possible causes of the fire, including the conduct of third parties.” While the defendants’ negligence may have caused the fire, it might also have been the result of arson unrelated to the construction. Indeed, the Court noted the fire occurred on Halloween, a night when many people intentionally set fires, and the plaintiffs’ house was in an area accessible to the public.

The mere fact the subcontractor’s employees were seen handling “flammable substances” and smoking cigarettes near the job site on the day of the fire was also not enough to sustain the plaintiffs’ lawsuit. Even if that was the most likely cause of the fire, the Supreme Court said the law required more definite proof of causation. The trial court was therefore correct to grant summary judgment.

Get Help From a Tennessee Personal Injury Attorney

Even when you know your injuries are someone else’s fault, a judge and jury still need to see hard proof. This is why, if you have been injured in an accident, it is important to work with an experienced Knoxville personal injury lawyer who can help you investigate the matter and gather all of the relevant evidence before heading into court. Contact the offices of Fox, Farley, Willis & Burnette, Attorneys at Law, if you need to speak with a lawyer today.



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