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Tennessee Court of Appeals Says Jury’s $0 Damages Award Was in Error, Given Plaintiff’s Serious Injuries

Seeking fair compensation following an east Tennessee slip and fall accident can be a complex endeavor. Depending upon the circumstances, there may be multiple defendants, some of whom point the finger of blame at one another. In some situations, one or more of the defendants may seek to avoid liability by relying on a particular statute. One possible statute that may prevent an injured party from seeking compensation for his or her injuries is the Tennessee Workers’ Compensation Act, which prevents an employee from suing his or her employer for negligence in most circumstances. When a plaintiff is able to make out a viable case of negligence against a property owner, he or she may be able to recover payment for several different types of money damages for his or her physical injuries.

Facts of the Case

In a recent appellate court case originating in the Circuit Court for Hawkins County, Tennessee, the plaintiff was a man who was injured in a fall while helping build a house for the defendant landowner. The plaintiff brought a negligence action against the defendant, seeking compensation for his medical expenses, lost wages, pain and suffering, and other damages caused by the fall. In explaining why he did not seek workers’ compensation benefits, the plaintiff averred that the defendant had failed to have a certificate of insurability and had not insured him at the time of the accident; according to the plaintiff, his appropriate remedy was thus in tort, not in workers’ compensation.

The case proceeded to a jury trial, during which the defendant attempted to point the blame for the plaintiff’s injuries toward a third-party who was not involved in the lawsuit. According to the defendant, this third party was a handyman who was helping the defendant build the house. The jury found that the plaintiff was the employee of the handyman rather than the defendant, that the handyman was 60% at fault for the plaintiff’s injuries, that the plaintiff was 30% at fault for his injuries, that the defendant was 10% at fault for the plaintiff’s injuries, and that the plaintiff was not entitled to any money damages. The plaintiff appealed.

The Court’s Ruling

On appeal to the Court of Appeals of Tennessee at Knoxville, the plaintiff argued that jury’s verdict had been contrary to the weight of evidence presented at trial, that the defendant was responsible for the safety of those working on the house, and that the defendant was liable for his injuries.

Although the defendant was acting as his own principal contractor in the building of the house, this did not, in and of itself, establish an employee-employer relationship between the parties. In reviewing the evidence, the court found material evidence that supported the jury’s determination that the plaintiff was an employee of the handyman, not the defendant. The handyman was, in turn, an independent contractor hired by the defendant. Thus, the defendant owed the handyman the duty of providing a reasonably safe place to work.

With respect to the jury’s determination that the plaintiff was not entitled to any money damages for his injuries, the court found that this decision was not supported by the evidence. Because it was obvious that the plaintiff had suffered a serious injury due to the accident, the jury’s verdict awarding zero damages was improper. On remand, the trial court was to give further consideration to the issue of damages.

Seek Justice Following an East Tennessee Premises Liability Accident

To talk to an experienced premises liability lawyer, please phone the Hartsoe Law Firm at 865-524-5657 and ask for a free consultation. We serve clients throughout east Tennessee, including Maryville, Alcoa, Sevierville, and Oak Ridge.

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