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Cartee v. Morris

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

September 6, 2019


          Session July 10, 2019

          Appeal from the Circuit Court for Davidson County No. 16C190 Amanda J. McClendon, Judge

         The plaintiff filed a premises liability action against a premises owner alleging that the premises owner was liable for injuries the plaintiff sustained after falling down a staircase located on the premises owner's property. The trial court denied the premises owner's motion for summary judgment but granted permission to pursue an interlocutory appeal. Because the plaintiff failed to present sufficient evidence of an essential element of his claim, we reverse the decision of the trial court.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 9 Interlocutory Appeal; Judgment of the Circuit Court Reversed and Remanded

          Benjamin Cole Aaron and William Taylor Ramsey, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellants, Dale Morris, Kyle Quigley, and MHM Holdings, LLC.

          Colin M. McCaffrey, Goodlettsville, Tennessee, for the appellant, Dale Morris.

          Eric Scott Cartee and Patrick Brian Newsom, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellee, Alan Cartee.

          Andy D. Bennett, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Frank G. Clement, Jr., P.J., M.S., and J. Steven Stafford, P.J., W.S., joined.



         Factual and Procedural Background

         At some point prior to January 2014, Alan Cartee began working for a group of entertainment management companies owned by Dale Morris.[1] Mr. Cartee's job duties included operating a recording studio and delivering studio recording fee checks to Jamie Summar at 818 19th Avenue South, Nashville, Tennessee ("the building"). On January 23, 2015, Mr. Cartee went to the building to deliver recording fee checks to Ms. Summar and fell down a wooden staircase located inside the building, rendering him unconscious for two days.

         The building was a two-story former residence owned by Mr. Morris that had been converted into office space. Kyle Quigley, Ms. Summar, and Sue Leonard worked for the various entertainment management companies owned by Mr. Morris, and their offices were located on the second floor of the building at the time of the incident.[2] Mr. Morris also had an office on the second floor of the building. The staircase Mr. Cartee fell down was the most common way to access the second floor.[3]

         Mr. Cartee initiated this lawsuit against Mr. Morris, Morris Higham Management, LLC, [4] MHM Holdings, LLC, and Mr. Quigley ("Defendants") on January 25, 2016. He alleged in his complaint that, as he was attempting to exit the second floor of the building onto the staircase, "he was required to attempt to step over a dog gate that had been installed at the very top of the staircase" by Mr. Quigley. Mr. Cartee further alleged that the dog gate constituted a dangerous condition and that he was injured because Defendants failed to either remove or warn of the dangerous condition. After Defendants filed an answer on March 16, 2016, the parties engaged in discovery by taking depositions of the following witnesses: Mr. Cartee, Mr. Quigley, Ms. Summar, Ms. Leonard, and Mr. Morris.

         Mr. Cartee testified that, as a result of the accident, he could not remember many of the details surrounding his fall. He could not recall how often he delivered checks to the second floor of the building prior to January 23, 2015. He admitted, however, that he regularly delivered checks to the second floor of the building and that "sometimes the checks were sporadic; sometimes more than others." Initially, Mr. Cartee testified that he thought he remembered seeing the dog gate in the year prior to the accident, but he later testified that he did not "know for sure" and could not remember. He recalled seeing the dog gate at the top of the staircase when he climbed to the second floor on the day of the incident. Mr. Cartee had no memory of how he traveled past the dog gate once reaching the top of the stairs on the day in question, but he acknowledged that the gate did not cause him to fall as he exited the staircase onto the second floor. He stated that, although he remembered delivering the checks to Ms. Summar and then speaking with her and Ms. Leonard, he had no personal knowledge of how he attempted to leave the second floor. Despite having no memory of the accident, Mr. Cartee believed that he fell down the stairs after tripping on the dog gate. He testified that he based this belief on what he "was told." When asked who told him he fell because he tripped over the dog gate, he responded that he did not know but speculated that either Ms. Summar or Ms. Leonard told him because they were the only people who could have witnessed the accident.

         Regarding the dog gate, Mr. Quigley testified that he began placing it at the top of the staircase in January 2014 when he started bringing his dog to the office. Mr. Morris described the gate as weighing "less than half a pound" and standing "[a] foot and a half" in height. Mr. Quigley, Ms. Summar, Ms. Leonard, and Mr. Morris all stated that the gate was never anchored to the wall. Rather, it was simply propped up at the entrance to the staircase so it could be easily moved. Those with offices on the second floor would typically move the gate or step over it when accessing the staircase. According to all of the witnesses, they were not aware of anyone suffering injury from or complaining about the staircase or dog gate prior to the incident. Finally, contrary to Mr. Cartee's testimony that Ms. Summar or Ms. Leonard probably told him that he tripped over the dog gate, both women testified that they did not witness the accident. They heard the gate tumble down the stairs at the time Mr. Cartee fell, and Ms. Leonard saw that the gate was at the bottom of the stairs after the fall.

         On October 13, 2017, Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment supported by all of the deposition testimony discussed above. Defendants argued that summary judgment was appropriate because, among other things, Mr. Cartee was unable to present prima facie proof of the cause in fact element of his claim. The trial court denied the motion in an order entered on March 21, 2018, concluding that "[i]t is reasonably foreseeable that someone would trip over the unsecure dog gate and fall down the stairs." The trial court further concluded that, because Ms. Summar and Ms. Leonard testified that they heard the dog gate tumble down the stairs at the time of the accident and that Ms. Leonard saw the gate at the bottom of the stairs afterwards, "[t]he reasonable inferences to which [Mr. Cartee] is entitled at the summary judgment stage preclude summary judgment in this case." Specifically, the court found that, based on the testimony of Ms. Summar and Ms. Leonard, "[a] reasonable juror could find that an unsecured dog gate at the top of a flight of stairs could have caused [Mr. Cartee's] fall." The trial court granted Defendants permission to seek an interlocutory appeal to this Court and, on January 17, 2019, we granted Defendants' application for an interlocutory appeal.

         Standard of Review

         We review a trial court's summary judgment determination de novo, with no presumption of correctness. Rye v. Women's Care Ctr. of Memphis, MPLLC, 477 S.W.3d 235, 250 (Tenn. 2015). Therefore, "we make a fresh determination of whether the requirements of Rule 56 of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure have been satisfied." Id. We "must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and must draw all reasonable inferences in that party's favor." Godfrey v. Ruiz, 90 S.W.3d 692, 695 (Tenn. 2002); see also Acute Care Holdings, LLC v. Houston Cnty., No. M2018-01534-COA-R3-CV, 2019 WL 2337434, at *4 (Tenn. Ct. App. June 3, 2019).

         Summary judgment is appropriate "if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56.04. When a party moves for summary judgment but does not have the burden of proof at trial, the moving party must either submit evidence "affirmatively negating an essential element of the nonmoving party's claim" or "demonstrating that the nonmoving party's evidence at the summary judgment stage is insufficient to establish the nonmoving party's claim or defense." Rye, 477 S.W.3d at 264. Once the moving party has satisfied this requirement, the nonmoving party "'may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of [its] pleading.'" Id. at 265 (quoting Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56.06). Rather, the nonmoving party must respond and produce affidavits, depositions, responses to interrogatories, or other discovery that "set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56.06; see also Rye, 477 S.W.3d at 265. If the nonmoving party fails to respond in this way, "summary judgment, if appropriate, shall be entered against the [nonmoving] party." Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56.06. If the moving party fails to show he or she is entitled to summary judgment, however, "'the non-movant's burden to produce either supporting affidavits or discovery materials is not triggered and the motion for summary judgment fails.'" Martin v. Norfolk S. Ry. Co., 271 S.W.3d 76, 83 (Tenn. 2008) (quoting McCarley v. W. Quality Food Serv., 960 S.W.2d 585, 588 (Tenn. 1998)).


         On appeal, Defendants argue that the trial court erred in denying their motion for summary judgment because Mr. Cartee is unable to prove all of the essential elements of his premises liability claim. Premises owners have a duty to exercise reasonable care to protect persons legally on their property from unreasonable risks of harm. Easley v. Baker, No. M2003-02752-COA-R3-CV, 2005 WL 697525, at *6-7 (Tenn. Ct. App. Mar. 24, 2005) (citing Basily v. Rain, Inc., 29 S.W.3d 879, 883-84 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2000)); see also Rice v. Sabir, 979 S.W.2d 305, 308 (Tenn. 1998). Included within this duty is the duty to "maintain[] the premises in a reasonably safe condition either by removing or repairing potentially dangerous conditions or by helping persons avoid injury by warning them of conditions that cannot, as a practical matter, be removed or repaired." Bowman v. State, 206 S.W.3d 467, 473 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2006); see also Eaton v. McLain, 891 S.W.2d 587, 593-94 (Tenn. 1994) (holding that premises owners owed a duty "to maintain the premises in ...

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