Foreseeability As a Question of Fact in Tennessee Courts

One of the more complicated aspects of a negligence claim is the determination of whether the injury was a foreseeable one and, if so, whether the foreseeability of such risks outweighed the cost incurred by the defendant in attempting to prevent it.  Foreseeability is sometimes considered an aspect of the duty determination in negligence claims, and sometimes found to be part of the breach component. Either way, courts have generally held that if a risk was not foreseeable, a defendant cannot be held liable for failing to prevent it.  A recent case before the Tennessee Court of Appeals looked at the question of foreseeability in a school assault case and determined that the question of foreseeability was one for the jury.

In Richardson v. Trenton Special School Districtthe parents of a child sued the school district after their child, known here as C.N.R., was assaulted by another student in a school bathroom. Both of the children were six at the time. C.N.R.’s parents began to suspect that something was wrong when C.N.R. told them that he was afraid to use the bathroom at school, but they thought that he was just a victim of bullying. It was only after the incident was reported to a teacher, who then reported it to the principal, that the parents learned that another child was assaulting their son.  While investigating the assault, the parents learned that another assault between two students had occurred earlier in the year, but in an after school program. As a result of that assault, the school changed its bathroom policy in the after school program to require that teachers accompany students into the bathroom.  It did not similarly change the policy during normal school hours.

However, the school did have in place a requirement that teachers closely monitor students and “keep them in their sights.” Teachers were further instructed to monitor students in hallways and bathrooms.  It was unknown, at this point in the case, what the impetus was for this policy.

Based on the prior assault and the change in after school policies, C.N.R.’s parents filed a lawsuit alleging negligence against the school district and a failure to protect students in bathrooms despite the known harm that could occur to them there. The school district moved for summary judgment, which the trial court granted. It held that it was not foreseeable that one six-year-old would assault another six-year-old in the school bathrooms. C.N.R’s parents appealed.

On appeal, the Tennessee court considered whether the school district owed a duty to its students to prevent such harm and, in conjunction with this inquiry, whether the harm C.N.R. experienced was foreseeable. It noted that a risk gives rise to a duty to act when the foreseeable probability of harm outweighs the burden on the defendant to engage in conduct that would prevent the harm.  Thus, while the foreseeability of an asteroid hitting a school may be so minute, and the burden on the school to prevent such a catastrophe so great, as to eliminate any possibility of duty, other circumstances, such as preventing a student from falling down wet stairs, may be easier to address, and a duty may arise. The court further noted that the question of foreseeability is generally one reserved for the jury.  Ultimately, the court determined that there were questions of fact as to whether C.N.R.’s assault or a similar assault may have been foreseeable, since the school district’s policies suggested it had dealt with prior incidents in bathrooms, or similar concerns about student safety. Accordingly, it reversed the trial court’s award of summary judgment and remanded for further proceedings.

As the Tennessee Court noted, negligence claims should rarely be resolved on summary judgment in Tennessee, since the courts strongly prefer that questions of fact go to the jury for resolution. If you are a personal injury plaintiff seeking to bring a negligence claim, this means that you have a good chance of being able to present your story to a jury as long as you can carefully and comprehensively craft your complaint.  Knowledgeable Tennessee personal injury attorney Eric Beasley can help you prepare a complaint and case that clearly identifies the relevant factual issues and overcomes any summary judgment motions. For more information or to discuss the circumstances of your case, contact the Law Office of Eric Beasley today at 615-859-2223.

Related Blog Posts:

Knowledge of Hazards and the Failure to Warn, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, July 7, 2016

Limiting the Scope of Duties Tennessee Universities Owe to Their Students, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, June 21, 2016.

What Constitutes a Known Dangerous Condition in Tennessee, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, June 7, 2016.