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How Prior Personal Injury Decisions May Affect Your Slip and Fall Case


Tennessee law is largely based on precedent. Basically, this means that when a judge is deciding your case, he or she will look to previous cases involving similar situations before determining the appropriate outcome for your dispute. But not all precedents are equally helpful. For instance, the facts of every personal injury claim are unique, and even where two cases appear similar on the surface, a deeper examination may reveal significant differences that require a court to alter its approach.

Appeals Court Finds Trial Judge Applied Wrong Precedent

Take this recent decision from the Tennessee Court of Appeals. A woman–our plaintiff–worked for a catering company. She was assigned to work an event at a private home, which is owned by the defendants. During the event, the defendants told the plaintiff to only use the side steps leading into their kitchen to enter and exit the house.

The event began during the day and lasted into the evening. When the event was complete, the plaintiff left the property through the kitchen steps as instructed. But it was dark out and, according to the plaintiff, there was no exterior lighting. As she moved down the stairs, the plaintiff said a “broken and/or defective railing” caused her to fall to the ground, landing on her face and leaving her with serious injuries.

The plaintiff subsequently filed a premises liability claim against the defendants. During pretrial depositions, the defendants offered conflicting statements regarding whether or not there was proper external lighting near the steps. But they nevertheless maintained the plaintiff was at-fault for her accident.

The trial court agreed and granted summary judgment to the defendants. In reaching this decision, the judge relied primarily on a 1994 Tennessee Supreme Court decision, Eaton v. McClain. But the Court of Appeals reversed the summary judgment ruling, holding the facts of Eaton differed significantly from the present case.

In Eaton, a woman sued her daughter and son-in-law after she tripped and fell while staying at their home. More precisely, the woman got up in the middle of the night and walked through the hallway without turning on the lights. She then mistakenly opened the door to the basement–she was looking for the bathroom–and fell down the steps.

In the present case, the Court of Appeals found the facts alleged by the plaintiff did not match those in Eaton. For one thing, the plaintiff was not a relative of the defendants and was unfamiliar with their property. More importantly, in Eaton the Supreme Court said there was no reasonable way the homeowners could have foreseen the plaintiff would “enter the basement area of their home in the middle of the night.” Here, in contrast, the plaintiff was following the defendants’ instructions to leave their home via the allegedly defective steps.

And that brought the appeals court to a third critical difference. Even if the defendants can prove they maintained proper exterior lighting on the night of the accident, there was still the plaintiff’s claim that a defective railing caused her fall. The trial court “inexplicably” failed to address this point at all, the Court of Appeals noted, rendering the precedent in Eaton wholly inapplicable to this case.

Speak With a Knoxville Personal Injury Attorney Today

No matter how many slip and fall accidents have already been litigated in Tennessee courts, each new case brings unique factual allegations that need to be properly considered. If you have been in any type of accident and need advice from a qualified Knoxville personal injury lawyer, contact Fox, Farley, Willis & Burnette, Attorneys at Law, today to schedule a free consultation.



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