75 Ft waterfall, middle of the night, no lights and a BAC of .18% results in two fatalities and one lawsuit. However, facts that created fatalities were the defense.

Tennessee’s duty to protect its citizens more than its duty to safety to invitees to its state parks is refreshing.

Morgan v. State of Tennessee, 2004 Tenn. App. LEXIS 62

State: Tennessee Court of Appeals

Plaintiff: Evelean Morgan

Defendant: State of Tennessee

Plaintiff Claims: negligently creating or maintaining a dangerous condition at Colditz Cove State Natural Area

Defendant Defenses: (1) Tennessee recreational use statute Tenn. Code Ann. § 70-7-102 (1995), (2) lack of actual or constructive notice of a dangerous condition, and (3) assertion that the decedent’s fault exceeded its own

Holding: For the Defendant State of Tennessee

Year: 2004

After the local bars closed the deceased and several friends went to a local state park to continue talking and drinking. The park was created because of the rock formations and the 75’ Northrup Falls. After taking and drinking in the parking lot, several members of the group decided to walk to the falls. The trail was primitive with no lights. One member of the group of five had a flashlight.

At a Y in the trail, two members of the group sat down to talk. The remaining three continued to walk. At one point, one person went into the bushes to pee and fell over the cliff on his way back. One member of the group sitting at the Y came down to assist. Later that same person decided to go for help, taking the flashlight with him.

The two remaining parties tried to start a fire to no avail. Eventually, the deceased, the daughter of the plaintiff in this lawsuit, also fell over the cliff. Approximately, an hour later rescue workers found the deceased floating in the water at the base of the falls. The deceased, the subject to this lawsuit had a blood-alcohol content of .18%

The mother of the deceased, the plaintiff, sued the State of Tennessee because the falls were a state park. In Tennessee this means filing a claim with the Tennessee Claims Commission. The claims commission commissioner reviewed the motions and granted the State of Tennessee’s motion for summary judgment. The plaintiff appealed. The commissioner’s decision was not based on the Tennessee Recreational Use Act but was based on the state’s defense of “(2) its lack of actual or constructive notice of a dangerous condition, and (3) its assertion that the decedent’s fault exceeded its own

Several states employ a separate state agency to handle claims against the state. The commissioner or judge hearing the claims is usually an attorney, called an administrative law judge. These judges operate with a separate set of rules of civil procedure and sometimes rules of evidence. The entire procedure is controlled by the statute that outlines how the state may be sued.

Summary of the case

The appellate court first looked at the Tennessee Recreation Use Act to see if it applied to this case. For the plaintiff to defeat the recreational use act, she must:

(1) prove that the defendant is not a “landowner,” (2) prove that the injured party was not engaged in a recreational activity, or (3) prove that the landowner’s conduct fits within one of the three exceptions in Tenn. Code Ann. § 70-7-104.

The court quickly determined that Tennessee was a landowner and that hiking and/or sightseeing (at night) was a recreational activity. The third issue was whether an exception to the act applied to the case. The sole exception argued by the plaintiff was the actions of the state were gross negligence.

Under Tennessee’s law, gross negligence is defined as:

… negligent conduct reflecting a reckless disregard for the safety of others. It does not require a particular state of mind as long as it creates an extremely unjustified risk to others. It differs from ordinary negligence only in degree, not in kind. Thus, gross negligence is a negligent act or failure to act that reflects more than lack of ordinary care (simple negligence) but less than intentional misconduct.

Ordinarily, the determination of whether a defendant’s actions were gross negligence is a factual determination, which can only be done by the trier of fact or a jury. However, if the facts are not in dispute and conclusions reasonable drawn from the facts would only lead to one conclusion; a court can determine if the acts rose to the level of gross negligence.

We find no evidence in this record upon which a reasonable person would conclude that the State was grossly negligent with regard to the construction or maintenance of the Colditz Cove State Natural Area.

The court then made a statement that places Tennessee in the minority, that the protection of the natural area in this case takes precedence over the safety issues.

The State had a statutory obligation to maintain this area in a pristine, natural condition. Erecting warning signs, installing lighting along the trails, fencing the entire area, or installing guard rails, barriers, or other sorts of buffers, while perhaps appropriate at Dollywood, would have been entirely unwarranted and unnecessary for a natural area such as Colditz Cove.

The court held that the recreational use act applied, and the plaintiff had not raised any defenses to its application.

The court then looked at the second issue, whether the state met the ordinary reasonable person standard of care for a landowner.

The State is not the insurer of the safety of persons on its property. It is, however, liable to these persons to the same extent that private owners and occupiers of land are liable, because Tenn. Code Ann. § 9-8-307(a)(1)(C) has imposed this common-law duty on the State. Tenn. Code Ann. § 9-8-307(a)(1)(C) provides that the State may be held monetarily liable for negligently created or maintained dangerous conditions on state controlled real property.

The state, as a landowner, has a duty to exercise reasonable care to prevent foreseeable injuries to persons on the premises. To prevail, the plaintiff must prove the actions leading to the fatality were a reasonably foreseeable probability. The court found this had not been proven.

The record contains no factual, legal, or policy basis for concluding that the State should have foreseen that intoxicated persons that were unfamiliar with the Colditz Cove State Natural Area would hike down the trail to Northrup Falls in the middle of the night without adequate illumination.

The final argument made by the plaintiff was the state’s gross negligence was greater than the negligence of the deceased. Having found the state was not grossly negligent, this argument also failed.

Ms. Zegilla’s [deceased] voluntary intoxication on the evening of July 26, 1997 does not relieve her from the responsibility of her own negligence. She was required to use reasonable care under the circumstances, and her conduct must be measured against the conduct of an ordinary, reasonable person rather than an ordinary and reasonable intoxicated person. Accordingly, if her conduct while intoxicated was a proximate cause of her death, it may be compared with the fault of the other parties whose fault was also a proximate cause.

It cannot be reasonably disputed that Ms. Zegilla was intoxicated when she arrived at Colditz Cove State Natural Area after midnight on July 26, 1997. Even though she had never visited the natural area before, she decided to venture into a wooded area down an unfamiliar, rough foot path in the dark. After one of her companions fell to his death, she continued to walk around in the darkness even though she must have known that danger was close at hand. As tragic as her death is, the only conclusion that reasonable persons can draw from these facts is that her fault far exceeded any fault that may reasonably be attributed to the State.

The plaintiff failed to make any arguments that the state could be held liable for the death of her daughter.

So Now What?

State statutes that outline the procedures for a claim against a state are so varied; it is difficult to rely on any decision on this issue. Similar arguments can be made when reviewing a state’s Recreational Use Statute.

However, here, the State of Tennessee did nothing to cause injury to the deceased. More importantly for future generations, the state does not have to destroy its natural areas to prevent drunks walking around parks at night from getting hurt.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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By Recreation Law       Rec-law@recreation-law.com              James H. Moss               #Authorrank

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