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Templeton v. Jackson-Madison County General Hospital District

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Jackson

August 15, 2017

SUE ANN TEMPLETON
v.
JACKSON-MADISON COUNTY GENERAL HOSPITAL DISTRICT

          Session June 29, 2017

         Appeal from the Circuit Court for Madison County No. C-14-213 Roy B. Morgan, Jr., Judge.

         This is an appeal from the grant of summary judgment in a Tennessee Governmental Tort Liability Act ("GTLA") premises liability case. Appellant was exiting Jackson-Madison County General Hospital/Appellee when she was hit by an automatic door, fell, and sustained a broken femur. Appellee moved for summary judgment on the ground that it was immune from suit under the GTLA. Appellant argued that Appellee failed to make a reasonable inspection of the automatic door, so as to discover the alleged dangerous or defective condition. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Appellee, finding that the condition was not dangerous or defective, the condition was latent, and Appellee had no actual or constructive notice of the condition. Discerning no error, we affirm.

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

          Donald N. Capparella, Nashville, Tennessee; Jonathan Levoy Griffith, Franklin, Tennessee; and Elizabeth Noel Sitgreaves, Brentwood, Tennessee, for the appellant, Sue Ann Templeton.

          Craig P. Sanders and Patrick W. Rogers, Jackson, Tennessee, for the appellee, Jackson-Madison County General Hospital District.

          Kenny Armstrong, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which J. Steven Stafford, P.J., W.S., and Brandon O. Gibson, J., joined.

          OPINION

          KENNY ARMSTRONG, JUDGE.

         I. Background

         On August 22, 2013, Sue Ann Templeton ("Ms. Templeton, " or "Appellant") filled a prescription at the pharmacy at the Jackson-Madison County General Hospital District ("Hospital, " or "Appellee"). Ingress and egress to the hospital is through two sets of automatic, motion-sensored, sliding doors. A review of the Hospital's security camera footage shows that, as Ms. Templeton was exiting the Hospital, she approached the first set of automatic doors at an angle parallel to the face of the door, then turned sharply left. As she crossed the threshold of the door, her shoulder hit the automatic sliding door panel, which was closing, and she fell and fractured her femur.

         On August 19, 2014, Appellant filed a complaint in the Circuit Court for Madison County ("trial court") against the Hospital[1] and Tri-State Automatic Doors ("Tri-State").[2]Appellant averred that the automatic door struck her shoulder, causing her fall and subsequent injuries. Appellant further alleged that the Hospital and Tri-State negligently failed to: (1) maintain the premises in a reasonably safe condition; (2) discover the dangerous condition; (3) remove the dangerous condition; and (4) warn of the dangerous condition. Appellant argued that these failures removed Appellee's governmental immunity under the Tennessee Governmental Tort Liability Act ("GTLA"), Tennessee Code Annotated Section 29-20-101, et seq. The Hospital filed its answer on September 23, 2014, wherein it denied liability and asserted that it was immune from liability pursuant to the GTLA.

         On August 31, 2016, Appellee filed a motion for summary judgment. In its motion, the Hospital alleged that it was entitled to summary judgment due to GLTA immunity because: (1) Appellant's proof was insufficient to show that the premises were in a "dangerous or defective condition;" (2) if a dangerous condition existed, it was latent; and (3) Appellee did not have actual or constructive notice of a dangerous or defective condition.[3] On September 26, 2016, Appellant filed her response to the motion for summary judgment, alleging that: (1) because she was struck by the automatic door, a dangerous condition existed; (2) Appellee failed to complete proper safety checks and, therefore, had constructive notice of the dangerous condition; and (3) the dangerous condition would have been discovered if Appellee had properly inspected the door, and, therefore, the dangerous condition was not latent.

         On September 29, 2016, the trial court heard Appellee's motion for summary judgment. By order of October 17, 2016, the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Appellee. The trial court's order states, in relevant part:

The Court finds that governmental immunity precludes [Appellant's] case. Tennessee Code Annotated § 29-20-204(a) provides that immunity from suit is removed for injury caused by "a dangerous or defective condition" of any public building. The Court finds that the automatic doors at issue did not constitute a "dangerous or defective condition" based upon the record before it. The undisputed proof shows that a very large number of people used the automatic doors at issue daily for a long period of time both before and after [Appellant's] fall…. [Appellant] is the only known person to have ever allegedly been struck by the automatic doors. Also, two maintenance mechanics from the Plant Operations department of the [Appellee] checked the automatic doors shortly after [Appellant's] fall. Neither mechanic found any problem with the automatic doors.
For these reasons, as well as others set forth in [Appellee's] Memorandum of Law in Support of Motion for Summary Judgment, a reasonable trier of fact could not find that the automatic doors constituted a "dangerous or defective condition" at the time of [Appellant's] fall based upon the undisputed proof.
The Court further finds that the alleged condition was latent, even assuming it was present. Therefore, [Appellee] is entitled to summary judgment even if the undisputed proof had shown that the condition was a "dangerous or defective" one. Tennessee Code Annotated § 29-20-204(b) provides that governmental immunity is not removed for latent conditions. The undisputed proof shows that the alleged condition, even assuming it existed, could not be seen absent special circumstances and may have never been seen even with extensive use…. The expert, Warren Davis, Ph.D., testified in deposition that it requires a "special circumstance" to see the alleged problem. He further testified that "it's entirely possible to use the door many, many times in such a way that you'll never see the door behave in any way that gives you a clue that that presence sensor or whatever it is is not working." For these reasons, as well as others set forth in [Appellee's] Memorandum of Law in Support of Motion for Summary Judgment, the Court finds that the alleged condition was latent based upon the undisputed proof.
The Court also finds that [Appellee] did not have actual or constructive notice of the alleged condition. Therefore, [Appellee] is entitled to summary judgment even if the undisputed proof had shown that the condition was a "dangerous or defective" one and that the condition was non-latent. The undisputed proof shows that nobody affiliated with [Appellee] was aware of any prior problems with the automatic doors at issue hitting people or closing on people before Plaintiff's fall despite heavy use of the doors. [Appellee's] employees, who were deposed by [Appellant], indicated that they were not aware of any similar incidents or complaints. Considering the evidence in the light most favorable to [Appellant], the Court finds no evidence on which to conclude that [Appellee] had actual or constructive knowledge that a problem existed with the automatic doors prior to [Appellant's] fall.
There is also a lack of proof as to the length of time the alleged dangerous condition existed on [Appellee's] property. [Appellant's] own expert testified that he does not know how long the alleged defective condition existed and that his opinion is limited to the time of [Appellant's] fall. [Appellee] has negated an essential element of [Appellant's] claim by showing that [Appellant] cannot prove how long the alleged defective condition was present, which is necessary to prove constructive notice in this case.
The Court further finds that there was no specific duty required of [Appellee] in checking the automatic doors at issue other than what the record shows [Appellee] did. A defendant using due care would not have discovered the alleged dangerous condition even assuming it was present.

Appellant appeals.

         II. Issues

         Appellant raises four issues for review, as stated in her brief:

I. Whether the trial court erred in granting summary judgment on [Appellant's] GTLA claim against [Appellee].
II. Whether the trial court erred in finding that there was no dangerous or defective condition where there were disputed material facts as to whether the automatic doors at issue constituted a dangerous or defective condition.
III. Whether the trial court erred in finding that if a dangerous or defective condition existed, it was a latent condition, where there were genuine issues of material fact as to whether [Appellee] in exercising its duty to maintain reasonably safe premises would have learned of the dangerous or defective condition by making a reasonable inspection as required to maintain the door in good working order.
IV. Whether the trial court erred in finding that [Appellee] negated the essential element of actual or constructive notice where there were genuine issues of material fact as to… whether there was constructive notice and ...

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