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Tennessee Supreme Court Rules Business Owner May Have a Duty to Protect Patrons from Intoxicated Person on Their Property — Cullum v. McCool

In Tennessee, the legal theory of premises liability holds property owners liable for injuries that occur on their property. Property owners have a duty to maintain their property in a reasonably safe condition.

Business owners have the highest level of care and have an affirmative duty to protect their patrons on their property. If you have been injured because of the unsafe conditions of a property, you are advised to contact an experienced premises liability attorney who can get you the compensation you deserve.

On December 18, 2013, the Supreme Court of Tennessee published Cullum v. McCool, a ruling that held that a store owner may be liable for injuries to patrons caused by an intoxicated person. In Cullum, a patron tried to purchase medication from the pharmacy at a Wal-Mart. The Wal-Mart employees refused to fill the prescription because she was intoxicated and acting belligerently. The Wal-Mart employees kicked her out of the store. While pulling out of her parking space, she backed into a the plaintiff while she was putting groceries in her trunk. The plaintiff began screaming loudly, but the defendant continued to back into her.

The plaintiff suffered serious injuries and brought personal injury claim against the defendant. She also brought a premises liability claim against Wal-Mart, claiming that the employees knew that the defendant was intoxicated and they knew she would get into her car and drive. Wal-Mart brought a motion to dismiss, claiming it did not owe a duty to control an intoxicated person. The trial court granted the dismissal but the appellate court reversed it.

Citing McClung v. Delta Square Ltd. Partnership the Supreme Court recognized that a business owner may be subject to liability under a premises liability theory if they failed to protect patrons from the reasonably foreseeable criminal acts of a third party or if they failed to protect patrons from the reasonably foreseeable negligent acts of a third party. Per McClung, the court balanced the foreseeability of harm and the gravity of harm against the burden placed on businesses. This balancing recognizes a duty on a business owners to protect the public but not put such an onerous burden as to harm the business economically.

Foreseeability of Harm
The court found that it was foreseeable that the defendant might drive drunk. The court noted that Wal-Mart had specific knowledge that the defendant presented a threat. The employees were familiar with her “habitual intoxication,” and they knew she would try to operate a car in a intoxicated state. The court found that it was foreseeable that she might drive drunk.

Risk of Harm
The court found that the risk of harm of an intoxicated person operating a motor vehicle was also foreseeable. The court noted that it was common knowledge that drunk drivers cause serious injuries and death.

Burden upon the Defendant
The court then weighed the burden on the defendant and found that calling 911 was not an onerous burden. The court emphasized that it was not creating a duty to restrain an intoxicated patron. Also, a store owner does not have to call for every drunk person on the premises, but a fact finder may find, in certain circumstances, determine that the foreseeable harm would outweigh the burden of having to call 911.

The court was careful not to extend the scope of possible liability. Unlike Lett v. Collis Foods, Inc. and West v. East Tennessee Pioneer Oil Co., the court held that Wal-Mart owed a duty to the plaintiff since she was a patron and the accident happened on the businesses’ premises. In Lett, an employer ordered an intoxicated employee to clock out. The employee drove home and collided with another driver. In West, a gasoline station sold gas to a knowingly intoxicated driver, who later had an accident, causing injury to another party.

When a person legally enters a property, he or she has a reasonable expectation that they will not get injured. The property owner has a responsibility for maintaining a safe premises. A property owner may be liable for a slip and fall on their property or a dog bite. In limited circumstances, they may be liable for the criminal or negligent actions of others on the property.

If you have been injured due to the unsafe conditions of another’s property, contact Hartsoe Law Firm, P.C. at (865) 524-5657.

Additional Resources:
Cullum v. McCool, Dec. 18, 2013, The Supreme Court of Tennessee at Knoxville

Premises Liability,

More Blog Entries:
The City of Knoxville Not Liable for Tree Falling on Public Street, Nov. 6, 2013, Knoxville Injury Lawyer Blog

Tennessee Premise Liability Lawsuit Goes to High Court, June 19, 2013, Knoxville Injury Lawyer Blog

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