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Tennessee Court Says Home Inspector Not Liable for Missing Defective Deck Railing

If you are seriously injured on someone else’s property, you may be able to recover damages against the owner if he or was negligent in maintaining the property. Such personal injury lawsuits may also extend to others responsible for the property’s maintenance, such as a management company. But what about third parties who might have inspected or performed work on the property? Here, Tennessee law can be more complicated.

What Is a Home Inspector’s Legal Duty to Third Parties?

Here is a recent example. In this case, the plaintiff was visiting a friend at his recently purchased home in Franklin, Tennessee. While leaning against the rail of a second-story deck, the railing failed, causing the plaintiff to fall two stories onto a concrete landing. After the accident, an inspection determined the deck had been “improperly constructed” and failed to adhere to local building codes.

But prior to the homeowner purchasing the house—a few weeks before his friend’s accident—he hired his own home inspector. While this first inspection revealed evidence of “warping” on the floor of the deck, it said nothing about the defective railing. (The deck floor was replaced prior to closing of the sale.)

Based on this, the plaintiff sued not only the homeowner, but also the inspector, claiming he failed to exercise “reasonable care” when inspecting the deck. In other words, the inspector “should have known” the deck railing did not comply with local building codes and would likely fail under pressure. In response, the inspector argued he owed no legal duty to “third parties” such as the plaintiff.

The courts agreed with the inspector. As the Tennessee Court of Appeals explained in a September 22 decision, the general rule governing tort liability to third parties did not apply in this case. This rule states anyone who provides services “necessary for the protection of a third person” may be liable for failure to exercise reasonable care. While this rule may apply to individuals who “perform safety inspections,” the Court of Appeals said, that does not describe the services provided by a pre-purchase home inspector like the defendant here.

Indeed, Tennessee law expressly states a “home inspection” of this type “does not mean a compliance inspection for building codes.” The Court of Appeals added while “pre-purchase home inspections are common, and perhaps advisable,” they are not legally required. Furthermore, Tennessee law limits disclosure of such pre-home inspections to the prospective buyer and his attorney; third parties cannot see them, so they cannot rely on them to establish a legal duty.

The Court of Appeals also rejected the plaintiff’s claim the home inspector was negligent under Tennessee common law, which addresses cases where “such a relation exists between the parties that the community will impose a legal obligation upon one for the benefit of others.” No such relationship existed here, the Court said. Among other concerns, the Court noted the “social value of the defendant’s conduct.” The Court was reluctant to expand the potential legal liability of such inspectors, as “the cost of home inspections would likely increase.”

Have Questions About Personal Injury Law?

You are likely to have many questions following an accident about who may be held legally responsible. An experienced Tennessee personal injury attorney can help answer these questions. Contact the offices of Fox, Farley, Willis & Burnette, Attorneys at Law, in Clinton or Knoxville today if you like to speak with an attorney right away.

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