Tennessee Courts Recognize Duty of Property Owners to Protect Volunteers

Central to every negligence claim in Tennessee is the requirement that a defendant actually owe a duty to a plaintiff.  The question of whether one owes a duty to another party often turns on the relationship between the two parties. For instance, an employer may owe a different duty to an employee than he or she owes to an independent contractor. And these duties are likely to be entirely different from any duty the employer may owe, if at all, to a total stranger.  For property owners, the duty owed to those who venture onto their property typically depends on whether the visitor was invited, there for purposes of business, or simply a trespasser.  A recent case before the Tennessee Court of Appeals addressed the duty owed to a special category of individuals:  volunteers.

In Reynolds v. Rich, the defendants in the case were in the process of building a new home.  They asked Mr. Reynolds to assist them with the roofing on the new home. Mr. Reynolds agreed to assist, along with a group of volunteers from a local church. During the process of installing the roof, Mr. Reynolds fell, breaking numerous bones and suffering serious nerve damage.  No one observed the fall, and Mr. Reynolds did not remember it, so it was unclear exactly how, or why, the fall occurred.  Nonetheless, Mr. Reynolds sued the Rich family for negligence, alleging that they failed to provide property safety precautions and equipment for working on a metal roof.

The Rich family immediately moved for summary judgment.  In support of their motion, they provided an affidavit stating that Mr. Reynolds was a volunteer worker, that he entirely determined how he was going to work on the roof, that they urged him several times to be more careful on the roof, and that Mr. Reynolds was aware of the dangers of working on a metal roof, but he did not take any precautions. They also noted that no one knew how or why Mr. Reynolds fell off the roof.  In response, Mr. Reynolds provided an affidavit from a occupational safety expert explaining that there are numerous safety restrictions required for metal roof working, that Mr. Reynolds became a contractor for the Rich family when they asked him to work on the roof, and that the Rich family was obligated but failed to provide such safety requirements for Mr. Reynolds. The trial court, after reviewing the affidavits, granted summary judgment for the Rich family, finding that the Rich family did not owe a duty to Mr. Reynolds and that Mr. Reynolds owed a duty of reasonable care to himself, which he had failed to abide by.

On appeal, the Tennessee Court of Appeals noted that property owners owe a duty of care to social guests and business owners to warn guests, or remove from the property, dangerous conditions of which they are aware or should be aware. This duty applies even when the dangers are “open and obvious” and thus should be clear to the guests themselves. By contrast, property owners have no duty to warn guests of dangers that are unknown to them, or of things they do not realize are dangerous. Here, the Court held that while it should have been clear to all volunteers that working on a metal roof could be dangerous and required safety precautions, this did not prevent the defendants from also having a duty to warn Mr. Reynolds and the other volunteers of such risks. Accordingly, the Court determined that the Rich family did owe a duty to Mr. Reynolds.  Moreover, it noted that genuine issues of material fact existed as to whether the Rich family breached this duty, or whether Mr. Reynolds’ injuries were caused by his own actions or inactions.  Therefore, it concluded that summary judgment was inappropriate at this stage in the proceedings and reversed.

When you invite others onto your property, whether for social or business purposes, you will often owe them a duty to protect them from known risks. If they are later hurt, you may be held liable. Experienced Tennessee premises liability attorney Eric Beasley can help you evaluate whether you have a strong claim for negligence against a property owner. 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:

Premise Liability for Unmarked Drop Offs in Tennessee, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, June 28, 2016.

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

Do Curbs For Wheelchair Ramps Constitute Dangerous Conditions In Tennessee?, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, January 27, 2016.