On June 22, 2020, DRI and TDLA members Kenneth W. Ward and Hannah S. Lowe (Trammell, Adkins & Ward, P.C., Knoxville, Tennessee) received a favorable ruling from the Tennessee Court of Appeals, which overturned a jury verdict in a slip and fall case brought against their clients, Beaver Hollow L.P. (BHLP), the owner of an apartment complex in Johnson City, Tennessee, and Olympia Management, Inc. (Olympia), the management company with which BHLP had contracted to manage the day-to-day operation of the apartments.
The plaintiff, a resident of the apartments, was injured in February 2015 after slipping on ice and snow in the parking lot. The plaintiff sued BHLP and Olympia in the Circuit Court for Washington County alleging negligence against both defendants and seeking compensatory damages. She was later permitted by the trial court to amend to seek punitive damages as well. The case was tried over several days in November 2018. At the end of the first phase of trial, the jury allocated fault 49% to the plaintiff, 50% to Olympia, and 1% to BHLP. Compensatory damages were found to be $1,251,396.41, which was reduced to $638,212.17 after allocation of plaintiff’s 49% share of fault. The matter proceeded to a second phase of trial to determine the amount of punitive damages against Olympia (the jury having determined that the plaintiff had established in the first phase entitlement to an award of punitive damages against Olympia only), and the jury ultimately awarded $1,400,000.00 in punitive damages against Olympia.
The defendants filed multiple post-trial motions, which were all denied. On appeal, the Tennessee Court of Appeals found one issue to be dispositive and require that the verdict be vacated and remanded for a new trial: the trial court’s denial of the defendants’ motion for a directed verdict with respect to BHLP, the property owner. Finding that there was absolutely no material evidence whatsoever in the record to support the jury’s allocation of fault to BHLP, as BHLP could not simply be held liable when the proof showed it was merely a passive owner of the apartments who had delegated complete actual control of the apartments to Olympia, the Court of Appeals held that the trial court erred in denying the defendants’ motion for a directed verdict as to BHLP. The failure to grant a directed verdict to BHLP meant that fault must be reallocated, which was particularly significant in this case where the plaintiff had been found to be 49% at fault, as had the jury allocated the 1% to the plaintiff instead of to BHLP, the defendants would have prevailed under Tennessee’s modified comparative fault system as the plaintiff would have been found to be 50% at fault.
Having found that the trial court erred in failing to grant a directed verdict to BHLP, and as fault could not be reallocated on appeal, the Court of Appeals vacated the trial court’s judgment and remanded for the trial court to enter a directed verdict as to BHLP and for a new trial with Olympia as the sole remaining defendant. Because the Court of Appeals found this one issue to be dispositive and mandate a new trial in this matter, all other issues on appeal were pretermitted.
You can read more about the case, Geneva Jessica Day v. Beaver Hollow, L.P., et. al., Appeal. No. E2019-01266-COA-R3-CV by following this link to the full text of the opinion.