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Tennessee Court Remands Case Against Governmental Entity to Consider Whether Water Meter Placement Was a Discretionary Function – Fowler v. Estate of Jackson

Governmental entities such as cities and utility companies enjoy governmental immunity against claims of liability pursuant to the Tennessee Governmental Tort Liability Act, Tennessee Code Annotated § 29-20-101 et seq. However, this immunity is not absolute.

For instance, there is no immunity for a governmental entity when a citizen is injured by a defective, unsafe, or dangerous condition of a street or walkway owned by the entity, if the injured person is able to show that the entity had either actual or constructive notice of the dangerous condition.

Constructive notice can be established by showing that the condition at issue had been in existence for a length of time sufficient for a property owner exercising due care to have become aware of it.

Facts of the Case

In the case of Fowler v. City of Memphis, the plaintiff was a man who was injured when he fell into an uncovered water meter in a sidewalk in Memphis. He filed a premises liability lawsuit against the defendants, the City of Memphis and Memphis Light, Gas, and Water (MLGW), alleging that the uncovered water meter presented a dangerous condition and that the defendants had both actual and constructive notice of the condition.

The defendants invoked the defense of governmental immunity, denying any notice of the condition at issue. They also raised the affirmative defense of comparative fault. While the case was pending, the original plaintiff died, and the administrator ad litem of his estate was substituted as the plaintiff. Some time thereafter, the Circuit Court of Shelby County granted summary judgment to MLGW on the basis that it had no actual or constructive notice of the dangerous condition that allegedly caused the original plaintiff’s injury.

The Decision of the Tennessee Court of Appeals

The court reversed the portion of the trial court’s order that granted summary judgment to MLGW on the plaintiff’s claim under Tennessee Code Annotated § 29-20-205. Although the court agreed that MLGW was entitled to partial summary judgment on the plaintiff’s other claims, it found that the trial court should have engaged in further consideration as to whether MLGW’s decision to install the particular water meter cover at issue constituted a discretionary function.

In so holding, the court acknowledged the plaintiff’s claim that, regardless of whether MLGW had notice that the cover at issue was missing at the time of the original plaintiff’s fall, it had been negligent in choosing to place a water meter hole in the center of a sidewalk and then covering it with a cover that was vulnerable to tampering. Notably, a city ordinance was in effect at the time of the original plaintiff’s accident to the effect that water meters were to be placed in grassy areas whenever possible.

If You Have Been Hurt in a Knoxville or East Tennessee Slip and Fall Accident

Premises liability cases, especially those against the government, can be difficult, but this does not mean that an injured person should assume that he or she cannot recover compensation from the negligent party. An aggressive, detail-oriented trial lawyer may be able to expose multiple weaknesses in the defendant’s case. To talk to an experienced Knoxville premises liability lawyer about your injury, call the Hartsoe Law Firm at (865) 524-5657 for a free case evaluation. If you can’t come to us, we will gladly make arrangements to come to your home for the appointment. We serve clients throughout east Tennessee, including Knoxville, Gatlinburg, Lenoir City, Oak Ridge, and Crossville.

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