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How a Directed Verdict Can Affect Your Personal Injury Lawsuit

Judges are sometimes quick to dismiss a personal injury lawsuit that has merit. Even when a case proceeds to trial, a judge can still bypass the jury and order a “directed verdict.” A directed verdict is itself an extreme remedy which should only be employed when a judge, after hearing all of the evidence in a case, determines there is “only one conclusion” a reasonable person could reach.

Appeals Court Orders New Trial in Defective Step Case

Recently the Tennessee Court of Appeals reversed a directed verdict for a defendant in a personal injury case arising from a premises liability claim. The defendants owned a rental property in Chattanooga. The plaintiff was viewing the property as a potential renter. There was a three-inch gap—described as a “step” by some, though not all, witnesses—between the floors in two adjoining rooms. While touring the property, the plaintiff did not see this step and tripped, causing her to fall, break her hip, and fracture her femur.

The plaintiff subsequently sued the defendants for negligence. The case was tried before a jury over two days in February 2013. Both parties testified on their own behalf and presented engineers as expert witnesses. After both sides finished presenting their cases, the defendants moved for a directed verdict, which the judge granted. The judge found the “step” was an “open and obvious” hazard the plaintiff should have seen. Therefore, the “Defendants did not owe the Plaintiff a duty to warn her of the condition of the step.”

But the Court of Appeals said it was not that cut-and-dry. In reversing the directed verdict, the appeals court said the “Plaintiff presented sufficient evidence from which a juror could reasonably find that the step was unreasonably dangerous or defective.” It was up to the jury, not the judge, to weigh this evidence and decide if it was enough to entitle the plaintiff to recover damages.

And while the trial judge held the step was an “open and obvious” hazard, the Court of Appeals said that under Tennessee common law, “a risk of harm may be foreseeable and unreasonable, thereby imposing a duty on a defendant, despite its potentially open and obvious nature.” In other words, simply labeling a hazard “open and obvious” is not enough to excuse the defendant from failing to anticipate and warn the plaintiff about a potential harm. And as the Court of Appeals explained with respect to the present case, “There is evidence in the record suggesting no clear visual contrast between the lower floor and the threshold that is elevated three inches higher.” From this and other evidence presented, the jury might have concluded that the step was not an “open and obvious” hazard. Unfortunately, the trial judge did not allow the jury to make that determination. A second jury may have that chance after the case is returned to the trial court.

Need Help from a Personal Injury Lawyer?

Personal injury lawsuits are often long, complex affairs. Even a seemingly simple accident may take years to resolve, especially when trial judges make erroneous decisions that prolong litigation. That is why it is important to work with an experienced Tennessee personal injury lawyer who understands the court system. Contact the offices of Fox, Farley, Willis & Burnette, Attorneys at Law, in Knoxville or Clinton today if you would like to speak with someone right away.

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