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Establishing a Defendant’s “Duty of Care” in a Negligence Case


In a personal injury lawsuit based on negligence, a plaintiff must prove that the defendant breached some “duty of care.” As a general rule, according to the Tennessee Supreme Court, when a person “assumes to act, even though gratuitously,” he or she “may thereby become subject to the duty of acting carefully,” and can be sued if they do not. Whether or not a defendant has assumed such a duty is a frequent subject of dispute in negligence cases.

Father May Sue Son For Failing to Hold Ladder

For example, the Tennessee Court of Appeals recently addressed a defendant’s potential liability arising from his failure to hold a ladder that his father was standing on. The father fell and suffered serious injuries. He subsequently filed a personal injury lawsuit against his son.

The father was camping in his recreational vehicle (RV) in North Carolina. The son, who lived nearby, agreed to help his father wax the RV. The son brought a ladder so they could access the top of the RV.

At one point the father was working on the ladder. The son was not holding the ladder, but rather was about 15 feet away, on the other side of the vehicle. According to court records, the “left side of the ladder was lower than the right side” because of its placement on sloped ground. When the father began to descend the ladder, “it fell away from the RV,” and caused him to fall along with it.

A trial court judge granted summary judgment to the son, holding that as a matter of law he had not breached any “duty of care” owed to his father. The Court of Appeals disagreed, reversed the grant of summary judgment, and returned the father’s lawsuit for trial.

Based on testimony from both parties obtained during pre-trial depositions, the Court of Appeals said there was evidence that the son “assumed a duty to stabilize and secure the ladder while [the father] was working on it.” Father and son both testified that on the day of, but prior to, the accident, the son had been either holding the ladder or been within “arms length” from the ladder so that he could immediately grab the ladder if it became unstable.

Under these circumstances, the appeals court said the son “had a duty to exercise due care.” The court did not address whether or not the son actually breached that duty. That will be a question for a jury to decide.

Get Help From a Clinton Accident Attorney

Establishing a defendant’s “duty of care” is just one element of a successful negligence claim. A personal injury lawsuit is rarely a simple affair even if the defendant’s responsibility seems obvious. That is why it is critical to work with an experienced Knoxville personal injury lawyer who knows what it takes to convince a jury–and an appeals court–that your case has merit. Contact the offices of Fox, Farley, Willis & Burnette, Attorneys at Law, if you need to speak with a lawyer right away.




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