New Tort Opinion Discusses Obscure Issues of Law, Reminds Contract Attorneys to Never Take Elements for Granted

Yesterday, the Tennessee Court of Appeals issued an opinion that read more like a first year Torts law school exam question than an actual case.

The case, Belinda Puller v. Judith Roney (No. M2018-01234-COA-R3-CV, Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 13, 2019), dealt with issues of res ipsa loquitur and homeowner premises liability.

The Court was faced with claims by a handyman who showed up to perform a variety of tasks at a house (including removal of debris from the roof) and, by the end of the day, was found on the ground. The handyman’s estate sued, alleging that his fall was the result of the homeowner’s defective ladder. Because no one saw what happened, the plaintiff alleged that the fall must have been caused by the defective ladder.

The Court considered the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, which allows a trier of fact to consider “circumstantial evidence of negligence when direct evidence is lacking” and “infer negligence from the circumstances.” But, there must be a “rational basis” for finding that the injury was “probably the result” of negligence and that the defendant’s negligence was “more probable than any other cause.”

The Court then outlined the elements of a premises liability claim based on negligence. Ultimately, the Court denied liability, based on the fact that there were no witnesses and that so many other factors could have caused the injury. The Court upheld the lower court’s grant of summary judgment.

This type of tort case goes beyond what I generally discuss here, but I think this case is valuable because it reminds you to: (a) always focus on the elements of your legal cause of action; and (b) always consider what proof is necessary to establish those elements. When you don’t (or can’t) clearly plead those facts, you risk an adverse summary judgment ruling.

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