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Robertson v. Clarksville-Montgomery County School System

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

June 28, 2018

LaSONYA ROBERTSON
v.
CLARKSVILLE-MONTGOMERY COUNTY SCHOOL SYSTEM

          Session May 24, 2018

          Appeal from the Circuit Court for Montgomery County No. 15-CV-1954 Ross H. Hicks, Judge

         This is a slip-and-fall case. A middle school teacher injured herself when she fell in the hallway outside her classroom on a wet floor. A custodian had been mopping the hallway prior to her fall, and the teacher alleged that the custodians had negligently and misleadingly placed wet-floor signs on the opposite side of the hallway, which did not warn her of the wet floor on her side of the hallway. Thereafter, the teacher brought suit against the school district pursuant to the Tennessee Governmental Tort Liability Act. Following a bench trial, the trial court found the custodians guilty of negligence and assigned seventy-five percent of the fault to the school district and twenty-five percent of the fault to the teacher. A judgment was entered against the school district in the amount of $180, 000.00, after reduction for the teacher's comparative fault. The school district appeals, contending (1) that it is immune from suit; (2) that it was not negligent; and (3) that any negligence it may have committed is outweighed by that of the teacher's comparative fault. The teacher argues that the trial court erred in assigning any of the fault to her. We affirm in part and reverse in part.

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

          Kathryn W. Olita and Jamie K. Durrett, Clarksville, Tennessee, for the appellant, Clarksville Montgomery County School System.

          William L. Aldred, Clarksville, Tennessee, for the appellee, LaSonya Robertson.

          Arnold B. Goldin, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Kenny Armstrong, JJ., joined.

          OPINION

          ARNOLD B. GOLDIN, JUDGE

         Background and Procedural History

         On September 29, 2015, Appellee LaSonya Robertson, an employee of the Clarksville-Montgomery County School System ("Appellant") and a teacher at Rossville Middle School, filed a complaint against Appellant to recover damages for personal injuries she sustained when she fell in the hallway outside her classroom at the school on December 12, 2014. Ms. Robertson alleged that Appellant was liable under the Tennessee Governmental Tort Liability Act ("GTLA") because the custodians had negligently mopped the hallway and misleadingly placed two wet-floor signs, and failed to warn her that the entire hallway was wet. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-20-307.

         On November 15, 2015, Appellant answered, denying that the custodians acted negligently. Furthermore, Appellant averred that it was immune under the GTLA. Appellant also argued that the water on the floor was "open and obvious" and asserted comparative fault as a defense.

         The trial court conducted a bench trial on August 29, 2017. Ms. Robertson, Norman Mitchell, Janet Willis, and Tommy Butler testified. Mr. Mitchell and Ms. Willis are custodians at the school, and they were present in the hallway when Ms. Robertson fell. Tommy Butler is the safety and health director for the school system. Ms. Robertson's fall was captured on a surveillance video, and the video was made an exhibit at trial. Several photographs taken by Ms. Willis after Ms. Robertson's fall were also introduced into evidence.

         Ms. Willis testified that on the day of the fall she had noticed water "tracked" in the hallway on the left side near the lockers, so she asked Mr. Mitchell to assist her in mopping the hallway. Mr. Mitchell testified that on the day of the accident, he had been assisting Ms. Willis because she was unable to mop due to a recent medical procedure. Mr. Mitchell and Ms. Willis testified that they had been trained, pursuant to Appellant's written policy, to place wet-floor signs out whenever the custodians were mopping or noticed liquid on the floor. Mr. Mitchell testified that there was liquid on the floor around an area on the left side of the hallway, so he placed two wet-floor signs out on the left side of the hallway near the liquid and began mopping. Mr. Mitchell testified that he mopped the entire hall, including the right side, which abutted Ms. Robertson's classroom, after he finished mopping the area between the signs where he had seen the spill. However, neither Ms. Willis nor Mr. Mitchell moved the wet-floor signs from the left side of the hallway where the signs were originally placed. Ms. Willis testified that she knew Ms. Robertson was in her classroom because they had spoken in her classroom around the time the hallway was being mopped but neither Ms. Willis nor Mr. Mitchell warned Ms. Robertson that Mr. Mitchell had mopped the entire hallway and not just the area on the left side of the hallway where Mr. Mitchell had placed the signs.

         Ms. Robertson testified that on the day of her fall, the students had been released early, but the teachers were expected to stay for the rest of the regular work day. Ms. Robertson testified that shortly after 1:00 P.M., she exited her classroom to make copies for her class and attend a teacher's meeting scheduled to take place at 1:30 P.M., when she immediately slipped on the wet floor in the hallway outside her classroom. Ms. Robertson testified that she was unaware that there was water on the floor until she fell, and she was unable to see into the hallway from where she had been working at her desk. Ms. Robertson testified that she was not in a hurry, and she did not see the wet-floor signs.

         Mr. Butler testified that the custodians attended an annual training session in which they were provided with a power-point presentation containing Appellant's wet-floor sign policy. Mr. Butler testified that custodians are required to put out wet-floor signs anytime they mop to "make the workplace and school environment as safe as [they] possibly can for staff, students, and visitors." Mr. Butler opined that the custodians in this case took reasonable steps to warn of the liquid on the floor in compliance with the written policy.

         On November 15, 2017, the trial court issued a Memorandum Opinion setting out its findings of fact and conclusions of law. The trial court found that the custodians did not place the wet-floor signs in such a way as to give Ms. Robertson adequate warning "that mopping had taken place or that the floor was wet in the area where she fell, particularly since the custodial staff knew that she was still in her classroom and had the opportunity to warn her orally but failed to do so." The trial court went on to make the following findings:

The placement of the signs in the small area on the left side of the hallway near the lockers and the entrance door to the other classroom would have been adequate to warn of a wet floor or mopping in that small immediate area. The Court finds that it was inadequate to warn Ms. Robertson or others that the center and right side of the hallway and the area immediately outside Ms. Robertson's classroom were wet or had been mopped and did not conform to the requirements set forth in the school system's policies.

         The trial court concluded that the custodians failed to properly implement the "wet floor sign policy," and "the placement of the signs was misleading and did not adequately warn Ms. Robertson that the right hand side of the hallway where she fell was wet." Therefore, the trial court found that Appellant was not immune under the GTLA. The trial court then held that the custodians were seventy-five percent negligent, but the court attributed twenty-five percent of the fault for the accident to Ms. Robertson because she was "negligent in failing to see the sign directly in front of her." The trial court entered a final judgment incorporating by reference its Memorandum Opinion and awarding Ms. Robertson a judgment for $180, 000.00, after reduction for her percentage of comparative fault. Appellant timely appealed.

         Issues Presented Appellant has raised the following issues for review, which we have rephrased as follows:

• Whether the trial court committed reversible error in concluding that Appellant's immunity under the Tennessee Governmental Tort Liability Act, Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-20-201 had been removed.
• Whether the evidence supports the trial court's conclusion that the custodians were negligent.
• Whether the evidence preponderates against the trial court's conclusion that the custodians' negligence exceeded the alleged negligence of Ms. Robertson.
Appellee has raised the following issue for review:
• Whether the trial court erred in failing to allocate one hundred percent of the fault for the accident to Appellant.

         Standard of Review

         This is a non-jury case and, as such, is subject to our de novo review upon the record of the proceedings below. We presume that the trial court's findings of fact are correct, and we must honor that presumption unless the evidence preponderates to the contrary. Tenn. R. App. P. 13; Union Carbide Corp. v. Huddleston,854 S.W.2d 87, 91 (Tenn. 1993). There is no presumption as to the correctness of the trial court's conclusions of law. See Campbell v. Florida Steel Corp.,919 S.W.2d 26, 35 (Tenn. 1996). As this is a case involving comparative fault, it is important to note that the assessment of the parties' relative fault is one of fact, carrying the aforementioned presumption of correctness. Wright v. City of Knoxville,898 S.W.2d 177, 181 (Tenn. 1995). Our de novo review is subject to the well-established principle that the trial court, having seen and ...


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