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Crockett v. Sumner County Board of Education

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

November 30, 2016


          Session October 10, 2016

         Appeal from the Circuit Court for Sumner County No. 83CC12013CV325 Joe Thompson, Judge

         A thirteen year-old child slipped off bleacher seats at a middle school and injured his leg when he was using the seats as steps in July 2012. The child and his parents sued the school for negligence, and the school asserted the defense of comparative negligence. The trial court applied the Rule of Sevens, concluded the school rebutted the presumption of no capacity for negligence, and determined that the child was solely responsible for his injury. The trial court also determined that the school was not liable for negligent supervision of the child. The parents and child appeal, and we affirm the trial court's judgment.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Circuit Court Affirmed


          Donald Capparella and Sean Martin, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellants, Donald and Melissa Crockett.

          Leah May Dennen, Gallatin, Tennessee, and A. Scott Derrick, Thomas B. Russell, and Sarah L. Blood, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellee, Sumner County Board of Education.

          Andy D. Bennett, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Frank G. Clement, Jr., P.J., M.S., and Richard H. Dinkins, J., joined.



         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         Andrew Crockett was thirteen years old in July 2012 when he was attending summer school at T.W. Hunter Middle School. On the final day of summer school, Andrew slipped off of a bleacher seat on which he was walking and fractured his lower leg above the ankle. Andrew was transported by ambulance to a hospital where he underwent surgery. His parents, Melissa and Donald Crockett, filed a complaint on behalf of themselves and Andrew against the Sumner County Board of Education d/b/a T.W. Hunter Middle School ("T.W. Hunter" or "the School") and William Lowe, who was one of Andrew's summer school teachers. The Crocketts asserted claims for negligence, negligent infliction of emotional distress, negligence per se, premises liability, and vicarious liability. They subsequently dismissed Mr. Lowe as a named defendant, and the case continued against T.W. Hunter. In its answer, the School asserted that Andrew's injuries were a result of his own negligence. In the alternative, the School contended that Andrew was more than fifty percent at fault for his accident, and that under the doctrine of comparative fault, the Crocketts were barred from recovering any damages from T.W. Hunter.

         The parties engaged in discovery, and when discovery was completed, both the Crocketts and T.W. Hunter filed motions for summary judgment. The trial court granted the School's motion on the issue of premises liability and dismissed that claim, but it denied both motions with respect to negligence. The parties tried the remaining claims before the court, without a jury, on September 28, 2015.

         At trial, Andrew testified that he had to attend summer school in the summer of 2012 because he had failed the eighth grade. He did not testify that he was unable to do the work assigned to him; rather, he explained that he chose to spend time with his friends instead:

It was my last year of middle school. I had - - I was excited about going to high school, so I kind of was - - just fell off on my grades and kind of traded off hanging out with friends and stuff like that.

         Andrew then testified about the events leading up to his accident. He explained that on the second to last day of summer school, someone stuck a roll of toilet paper down a toilet in the boys' bathroom located in the gymnasium, causing the toilet to overflow and creating a mess in the bathroom. Coach William Lowe and Coach Clinton Niehaus were two of Andrew's summer school teachers, and they asked the boys to tell them who was responsible for the vandalism. When no one was willing to confess or identify the perpetrator(s), Coaches Lowe and Niehaus decided on a collective punishment and told the boys they would all be required to clean up the mess the following day, June 28, 2012, before they would be excused for the remainder of the summer.

         Andrew testified that after he and his classmates finished their final exams on the last day of summer school, the boys reported to the gym, where Coach Niehaus was waiting for them. According to Andrew, Coach Niehaus told the boys that everyone was required both to mop the bathroom and pick up trash in the bleachers. Andrew offered to mop first, and after he finished mopping, Andrew joined the boys in the bleachers to help pick up trash.

         Andrew testified that he was wearing sneakers that day and that they were wet when he finished mopping. Andrew did not know whether Coach Niehaus realized Andrew's shoes were wet when he directed Andrew to start cleaning up the trash in the bleachers. Andrew testified that the other boys were using the blue bleacher seats as steps while they collected the trash, and Andrew did the same:

Q: [H]ow were you going about picking up - - traveling to pick up that trash?
A: I was just standing on the blue part, and I would step down to get the trash, and so on and so forth.
Q: Okay. Is that what the kids were doing before you came - - or when you had first arrived at the gym?
A: Yes, sir.
Q: They were walking on the blue part?
A: Yes, sir.
Q: Okay. And Coach Niehaus was there?
A: Yes, sir.
Q: Did you hear Coach Niehaus tell any of those kids not to walk on the blue part?
A: No, sir.
Q: At what point - - Well, did Coach Niehaus supervise you as you were cleaning the bleachers?
A: Yes, sir. . . . He was standing in the same location as before, with his arms crossed, facing the bleachers, watching us pick up trash.
Q: He saw you step on the blue part of the ...

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