Tennessee Court Finds No Liability Where Danger Only Became Known At Time of Accident

Knowledge is a central component of any Tennessee negligence claim. In order for one party to be held liable for negligence toward a dangerous condition that leads to the injury of another, that party must have actual or constructive knowledge that the dangerous condition existed. This protects individuals from being held responsible for conditions or circumstances that they knew nothing about.

While defendants in a negligence case must have knowledge, they can’t use the knowledge requirement to shield themselves from liability. That is, they can’t remain willfully ignorant of a situation or circumstance so that they are not responsible for it. Instead, if they reasonably should have known, they can be held liable on that basis. A recent Tennessee Court of Appeals case looks at a circumstance where even reasonable efforts could not have discovered the danger that was alleged.

In this Tennessee premise liability case, O.J. sued Goodwill Industries after she was injured in an accident at one of their Tennessee stores. O.J. entered the store looking for furniture and noticed a plastic table and chairs sitting near a storefront. She moved the plastic chair and sat down on it in order to test it out. As she sat down, the chair collapsed, breaking and causing her to fall and hit her head. She sued Goodwill for her injuries, arguing that Goodwill had failed to reasonably inspect the structural strength of the chair and that, if it had, it would have known the chair was defective and should not have been placed on the store floor.

During O.J.’s deposition, she acknowledged that there was nothing visible about the chair that would have indicated to Goodwill employees that it was in a defective condition. Indeed, she herself looked at the chair before sitting in it and didn’t notice anything that was a cause for concern. Thus, she acknowledged that on visual inspection, Goodwill would have had no way of knowing the chair was dangerous. O.J. argued, however, that during Goodwill’s intake process, they should have inspected the structural integrity and strength of the chair and, had they done that, they would have known the chair was a problem.

In response, Goodwill’s employees who handled the intake process at the store also testified and stated that they did an inspection and tested all items coming into the store to make sure there were no obvious issues, including pulling on and manipulating the plastic chair to make sure that it did not have issues such as a crack. After this investigation and testing, they could not find a problem with the chair.

In light of these depositions, Goodwill moved for summary judgment, arguing that there was no evidence that Goodwill knew, or should have known, that the chair was in defective condition and that the defect only became obvious at the time of the accident. The lower court agreed and granted the motion for summary judgment.  O.J. appealed.

On appeal, O.J. argued that there were genuine issues of material fact as to whether Goodwill’s inspection process was sufficient for it to identify defective products like the chair. The appeals court noted that Goodwill had provided testimony that it had a thorough inspection process that reasonably protected customers from the possibility of harm and that O.J. had been unable to identify the defect within the chair that could have been caught had the inspection process been changed. Without being able to pinpoint exactly what Goodwill failed to do, or failed to catch, the appeals court held that O.J. could not establish any genuine issues of dispute about Goodwill’s process.  Accordingly, it upheld the grant of summary judgment by the lower court.

Where a company knowingly tries to avoid responsibility by failing to adequately investigate products that it sells, the failure to make a reasonable inquiry can be a basis for liability itself. However, where even under a reasonable inquiry the company could not have known that a defect or dangerous condition existed, this case makes clear that liability will not be found.  If you have been accused of failing to properly test for or identify dangerous conditions and are looking for an attorney who can fight for your rights at every step in a dispute premises liability attorney Eric Beasley can assist you. For more information, contact the Law Office of Eric Beasley today at 615-859-2223.

Related Blog Posts:

Tennessee Court Holds Premise Liability Case Not Appropriate for Summary Judgment, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, May 9, 2018.

Tennessee Court Finds Homeowner Not Responsible for Worker’s Fall, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, March 20, 2018.

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