Tennessee Supreme Court Allows Both Direct and Indirect Negligence Claims in Slip and Fall Case

Nashville, Tenn. – The Tennessee Supreme Court today held that a plaintiff may go forward with claims of direct negligence against a business even after the business admits it is indirectly liable for any negligence of its employee.  The Court also held that a plaintiff may assert concurrent claims based on both negligent activity and premises liability.

On December 17, 2018, Melissa Binns (“Plaintiff”) allegedly slipped and fell at a grocery store owned and operated by Trader Joe’s East, Inc. (“Defendant”) in Nashville, Tennessee.  Plaintiff claimed that an employee of Defendant negligently loaded and stocked tofu in the store, causing a package to fall and release a clear liquid onto the floor.  While shopping, Plaintiff walked down the aisle with the spill, slipped on the liquid, and suffered injuries.  Plaintiff filed suit, alleging premises liability, negligent training, negligent supervision, and indirect or “vicarious” liability against Defendant.  In its answer, Defendant denied liability for the incident but admitted it would be vicariously liable for the conduct of its employee if the fact finder determined the employee was negligent. 

Defendant then filed a motion for partial judgment on the pleadings, attempting to dismiss Plaintiff’s negligent training and supervision claims.  Defendant argued that Plaintiff’s direct negligent claims were “legally deficient” for two reasons.  First, Defendant argued that the negligent training and supervision claims were precluded because Defendant had admitted to being vicariously liable for the actions of its employees, a theory known as the “preemption rule.”  Alternatively, Defendant argued that “negligent activity” and premises liability claims cannot be asserted concurrently in a lawsuit by a single plaintiff because the claims are logically inconsistent.  

The trial court denied Defendant’s motion for partial judgment on the pleadings.  However, the trial court granted Defendant permission to file an interlocutory appeal to ask the Court of Appeals to determine the viability of Defendant’s proposed rules under Tennessee law.  Although the Court of Appeals declined Defendant’s application, the Tennessee Supreme Court granted review.

The Tennessee Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s ruling.  First, the Court declined to adopt what courts call the “preemption rule,” which says that once an employer admits vicarious liability for its employee’s negligence, plaintiffs cannot go forward with claims of direct negligence against the employer.  The Court explained that the preemption rule conflicts with Tennessee’s system of modified comparative fault, among other concerns.

The Court also declined to adopt Defendant’s proposed rule involving “negligent activity” and premises liability claims.  It explained that even if claims for “negligent activity” and premises liability are logically inconsistent under the particular facts of a given case, the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure permit parties to state separate claims in their complaint, “regardless of consistency.” 

To read the unanimous opinion in Binns v. Trader Joe’s East Inc., authored by Justice Roger A. Page, visit the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.