Tennessee Court Dismisses Premises Liability Claim Because of Immunity

As previously mentioned on this blog, governmental actors are entitled to many special protections in Tennessee when they are the subjects of lawsuits. Under the Tennessee Governmental Immunity Act, governmental agencies and their employees are immune from liability in certain situations. Typically, when a governmental agency or entity is sued, the burden is on the plaintiff to show that governmental immunity does not apply. If the plaintiff cannot do so, the lawsuit will most likely be dismissed, as illustrated in a recent Court of Appeals case.

In this Tennessee premises liability case, L.W. sued the Chattanooga-Hamilton Hospital Authority after she was severely injured while visiting one of their hospitals, Erlanger, for an appointment. At the time, L.W. was recovering from a broken arm and had an appointment to visit her orthopedic doctor. When she arrived at Erlanger, she stepped into the hospital waiting room to wait for her appointment. Unbeknownst to her at the time, she was standing next to an emergency exit door that had no signage or distinguishing features. When an Erlanger employee suddenly exited the door, the door rammed into L.W., causing her to fly across the room and land on her back.

At the time of the accident, she could no longer feel anything below her neck and believed that she was paralyzed. It was later discovered that she had fractured her hip. As a result of the accident, L.W. lost significant mobility, was required to use a walker, and lived with constant pain.

L.W. sued Erlanger in Tennessee court, arguing that the unmarked emergency door constituted a dangerous condition from which the hospital system should have protected her. She presented her own testimony about how she was entirely unaware of the door, as well as providing testimony from experts about how the door could have been better identified by signage, or could have had a glass window that would have permitted individuals exiting through the door to make sure that someone wasn’t standing on the other side.

After reviewing all of the evidence, the lower court determined that L.W. was unable to prove causation because she could not show that the door constituted an objectively defective condition and, alternatively, could not show that the changes made to the door would have ultimately prevented the accident that occurred. On this basis, the lower court dismissed L.W.’s complaint. L.W. appealed.

On appeal, the Tennessee Court of Appeals took a surprising turn. It noted that before getting to the causation issue, the court first had to consider whether the Chattanooga-Hamilton Hospital Authority was actually immune from suit because it was a governmental entity. The court acknowledged that the Hospital Authority was in fact a governmental entity and then turned to consider whether any exceptions might apply, even though not raised by the plaintiff.

The court noted that while an exception applies for dangerous or defective conditions in governmental structures, the lower court had determined that a dangerous or defective condition did not exist in the door and that the evidence supported this conclusion. Therefore, the appellate court concluded that an exception to liability could not apply on this basis. The court also noted that exceptions apply for employees working in their scope of employment, but this exception did not seem to apply in this instance either.

Since no relevant exception applied, and the plaintiff had provided no other reason for avoiding immunity, the appeals court determined that the Hospital Authority was entitled to immunity and that the lawsuit should be dismissed on this basis. Accordingly, it modified the lower court’s decision but affirmed the dismissal.

Plaintiffs suing a governmental entity must always be cognizant of the special requirements that apply and the special protections that governmental entities and agencies are entitled to receive. While they are not always immune from suit, it is the burden of the plaintiff to show that immunity does not apply, and if the plaintiff does not meet this burden, the case can be dismissed. Tennessee premises liability attorney Eric Beasley can help you craft a claim against a governmental entity, agency, or employee that is less likely to be dismissed on immunity grounds, and he can help you work around the immunity statutes. If you have recently been injured and are uncertain about your rights, contact the Law Office of Eric Beasley today at 615-859-2223.

Related Blog Posts:

Tennessee Court Holds No Duty to Keep Parking Spots Safe, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, December 15, 2017.

Tennessee Court Rejects Claim that Doorframe Was Dangerous Condition, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, November 9, 2017.

Tennessee Court Grants Summary Judgment When No Risk Could Have Been Anticipated, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, June 21, 2017