Childress v. Madison County, 777 S.W.2d 1 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1989)
William Todd Childress, By and Through his parents, Ira Childress and Joyce Childress, and Ira Childress and Joyce Childress, individually, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. Madison County, Tennessee, The Madison County Board of Education, and the Young Men’s Christian Association, Jackson, Tennessee, a/k/a Y.M.C.A., Defendants-Appellees
[NO NUMBER IN ORIGINAL]
Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Western Section
777 S.W.2d 1; 1989 Tenn. App. LEXIS 48
January 24, 1989, Filed
SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: Application for Permission to Appeal Denied August 7, 1989.
PRIOR HISTORY: [**1] From the Circuit Court of Madison County, Tennessee, MADISON LAW NO. 5, The Honorable Andrew T. Taylor, Judge
DISPOSITION: AFFIRMED IN PART, REVERSED IN PART AND REMANDED.
COUNSEL: David Hardee, Linda L. Moore, Jackson, Attorneys for Plaintiffs-Appellants.
J. Tim Edwards, Memphis, Glassman, Jeter & Edwards, Attorney for Defendants-Appellees.
JUDGES: Highers, J. Nearn, Sp. J., concurs. Tomlin, P.J., W.S., concurs separately.
OPINION BY: HIGHERS
[*2] The plaintiffs, Ira Childress and Joyce Childress, brought this action individually and on behalf of their son, William Todd Childress, against Madison County and the Madison County Board of Education, alleging negligence which proximately caused personal injury to their son, a mentally handicapped student in Special Education at South Side High School. After a bench trial, the court found that the evidence did not preponderate in favor of the contentions of the plaintiffs. Plaintiffs are appealing from a judgment for the defendants.
At the time of the accident, William Todd Childress was a twenty-year old, nonverbal, severely retarded student. He traveled regularly with his class to the Y.M.C.A. to use recreational facilities, including a swimming pool. 1 [**2] The trips were supervised by a teacher and an aide, both employees of Madison County, and while at the pool, by a lifeguard employed by the Y.M.C.A.
1 The Y.M.C.A. was originally a party defendant, but was dismissed before trial and is not involved in this appeal.
Some of the trips were to allow students to train for the Special Olympics. Childress’ event consisted of walking the width of the shallow end of the swimming pool and handing a floating ball to an attendant.
On April 11, 1984, near the end of one of these training excursions to the Y.M.C.A., Childress was found on the floor of the pool at the point where the pool slopes from the shallow to the deep end. He was retrieved by the lifeguard and, after resuscitation began to breathe. He expelled water, vomited, and coughed, but otherwise appeared normal. An ambulance was called and Childress was taken to the hospital and admitted. Childress sustained injuries and incurred medical expenses as a result of this incident.
[*3] The teacher testified that there were three people who were responsible for observing the class — the teacher, the aide, and the lifeguard. The teacher testified that she was at the shallow end of the [**3] pool, the aide was on the other side of the pool, and the lifeguard was in and out of the pool at various points while offering instruction to students.
On this occasion the teacher stated that she was working with Childress. She described the events leading to the accident as follows:
Q. And toward the end of that hour what specifically were you doing with the children?
A. Well, the last thing that I did before I got out of the pool was work with Todd going back and forth across the pool.
Q. He would be walking back and forth across the pool?
Q. And when you ceased that activity, what did you do?
A. I told Todd to get out of the water and told all of the other children to get out of the water.
Q. Did Todd get out of the water?
A. I did not see Todd get out of the water. As the children were exiting the pool another student jumped in at the shallow end, who was a swimmer, to swim a lap and I walked along the edge of the pool as he swam to the deep end.
Q. Did you ever again see Todd after you told him to get out of the pool until he was found underwater?
* * * *
Q. Do you know who was watching Todd?
Q. Do you know if anybody was watching [**4] Todd?
A. We all had joint responsibility for watching the students.
Q. Do you know if anyone was watching Todd as he was getting out of the pool?
A. I would have no way of knowing.
In light of the testimony, we are of the opinion that the evidence preponderates against a finding of no negligence. [HN1] In non-jury matters the findings of fact of the trial court come to this court with a presumption of correctness and are reviewed de novo. Unless the evidence preponderates against the findings, we must affirm. T.R.A.P. 13(d). The trial court’s judgment in this case indicates that he found no negligence on the part of Madison County or the Madison County Board of Education. The proof shows, however, that the teacher and the aide were responsible for watching the students; that the teacher ordered students out of the pool, but did not actually see Childress exit; that she became involved in observing another student, and did not know whether Childress left the pool; and that she did not know whether anyone was watching Childress during the crucial period when he apparently went into water that was over his head, thereby sustaining the injuries and damages which gave rise to the complaint. [**5] It further appears that each of the attendants was involved in small group instruction and that no one actually scanned the pool in order to see whether the group as a whole had obeyed the instructions to leave the area. But for the fact that no one watched the pool without the distractions of other instruction, Childress would not have been injured.
Under these circumstances, we cannot say that plaintiffs have failed to make out a case by the greater weight or preponderance of the evidence.
The defendants have raised a further issue in this case, however, that the mother executed a release of all liability of these defendants. It is their contention that even if they were guilty of negligence the action is barred by the release of claims executed by the mother individually and on behalf of her son.
[HN2] It is well settled in this state that parties may contract that one shall not be liable for his negligence to another but that such other shall assume the risk incident to such negligence. Moss v. Fortune, 207 Tenn. 426, 340 S.W.2d 902 (1960). This [*4] rule is subject to exception. A party cannot contract away his liability for willful or gross negligence. [**6] Memphis & Charleston Railroad Co. v. Jones, 39 Tenn. (2 Head) 517 (1859). Neither can a party contract away liability if the duty under which he acts is a public one. Cincinnati, New Orleans & Texas Pacific Railway Co. v. Saulsbury, 115 Tenn. 402, 90 S.W. 624, 626 (1905); Carolina, Clinchfield & Ohio Railway Co. v. Unaka Springs Lumber Co., 130 Tenn. 354, 170 S.W. 591, 594 (1914); Hartford Fire Insurance Co. v. Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway Co., 175 U.S. 91, 20 S. Ct. 33, 44 L. Ed. 84 (1899).
[HN3] The existence of a public duty which would disallow giving effect to an exculpatory provision is determined by looking at several factors. If the service provided is the type which may generally be subject to public regulation then the duty probably exists. Smith v. Southern Bell, 364 S.W.2d at 958. Other factors include the degree to which the service is of practical necessity for some members of the public, whether the service is offered to any member of the public who seeks it or qualifies for it, whether one party has greater bargaining power than [**7] members of the general public, whether in exercising that bargaining power, the party presents a standardized “adhesion” contract making no provision whereby protection against negligence may be obtained, or whether the person or property of one party is placed under the control of the other. Olson v. Molzen, 558 S.W.2d 429, 431 (Tenn. 1977) (adopting the rule of Tunkl v. Regents of University of California, 60 Cal.2d 92, 32 Cal. Rptr. 33, 383 P.2d 441 (1963)). [HN4] Particularly offensive in Tennessee are exculpation contracts executed by persons in professional vocations. Olson, 558 S.W.2d at 432.
[HN5] Persons and businesses which normally operate under a public duty are not bound by the exception and can execute valid exculpation contracts when the transaction in question is not under that public duty. Thus it has been held that a telephone company can execute such a contract as to its advertising services, Smith v. Southern Bell, 51 Tenn. App. 146, 364 S.W.2d 952, 957-958, citing Mitchell v. Southwestern Bell Telephone Co., 298 S.W.2d 520 (Mo. App. 1957), and a common carrier may contract [**8] against liability when executing a lease agreement, Cincinnati, N.O. & T.P.R.Co. v. Saulsbury, 90 S.W. at 626.
Analyzing the facts of this case under the foregoing rules, we find that the Special Olympics generally, and the services provided in this case specifically, are governed by the general rule and do not fall under the exception prohibiting exculpatory clauses. Although there are a number of circumstances which would otherwise bring the Special Olympics under the exceptions related to professional or public services, our analysis of all the cases cited reveals that the rule was intended to operate primarily in the marketplace. The Olson opinion in analyzing the public duty exception refers to “business,” “bargaining strength” in “economic settings,” “purchasers,” and payment of “additional fees to obtain protection against negligence” implying that there were fees in the first place. We are not here saying that the touchstone of the analysis is the existence or absence of business motivations, or pecuniary exchange. But when those considerations which are tied to economic factors are eliminated from the analysis, in this case by the absence [**9] of any business motivations, the remaining factors are insufficient to bring this case under the exception. Having determined that the [HN6] exculpatory clauses are generally valid as to the Special Olympics, we look now to the provisions of the clause used in this case.
The exculpatory language in this case is a part of a form document entitled “Tennessee Special Olympics Parental/Medical Release Form.” It is printed on an 8 1/2″ X 11″ sheet divided into three sections, the right half of the page being a medical release to be completed by a physician or registered nurse. The left half of the page is divided into two sections, the top being for completion by parents or teachers requiring statistical date such as age, clothing sizes, and addresses of the participant. [*5] The bottom section is entitled “Parent/Guardian Release.” As completed in the case at bar, the release is as follows:
I hereby give permission for the entrant named above to participate in the Special Olympics program — a sports-training, recreation, and competitive athletic program for mentally retarded children and adults.
I represent and warrant to you that [**10] the entrant is physically and mentally able to participate in Special Olympics, and I submit herewith a subscribed medical certificate.
Consent to Treatment:
You are authorized on my behalf and at my account to take such measures and arrange for such medical and hospital treatment as you may deem advisable for the health and well-being of the entrant without the need for further consent or permission.
Release of Claim:
I, the undersigned, individually and on behalf of the above-named entrant, acknowledge that the entrant will be using facilities at his/her own risk. I, on my own behalf, hereby release, discharge and indemnify Special Olympics, its directors, officers, employees, physicians, agents, and all volunteer personnel from all liabilities for damage, injury or illness to the entrant or his/her property during his/her participation in or travel to or from any Special Olympics event. (Emphasis Supplied)
Permission to Publish:
Permission is hereby granted to use the name, likeness, voice and words of the entrant in television, radio, films, newspapers, magazines and other media, and in any form not heretofore described for the purposes and activities of Special Olympics [**11] and in appealing for funds to support such activities.
Mrs. Ira Childress (subscribed)
Relationship to Entrant
The emphasized language is at issue. The trial judge was of the opinion that Mrs. Childress “had executed a document releasing these defendants from liabilities as a result of any injuries that might occur in connection with the Special Olympics program.” This conclusion is in part correct.
[HN7] Exculpatory clauses purporting to contract against liability for intentional conduct, recklessness or gross negligence are unenforceable. See Adams v. Roark, 686 S.W.2d 73 (Tenn. 1985) Memphis & Charleston Railroad Co., supra. We find that the defendants in this case have not exceeded the bounds of simple negligence, even in light of the higher standard of care under which they operate due to the students’ mental disability. See 65A C.J.S. Negligence § 141 (1966).
The parties in this case are the plaintiffs, Todd Childress, by his parents, and his mother, Joyce Childress, and his father, Ira Childress, individually; and the defendants, Madison [**12] County, and the Madison County Board of Education. The defendants were at the time of the incident in question acting through the teacher and her aide as agents or volunteers of the Special Olympics. The incident occurred during a Special Olympics training session, which the evidence shows was a “Special Olympics event” within the meaning of that phrase as used in the release form. While the evidence did show that there had been trips to the Y.M.C.A. pool which were independent of Special Olympics training, it is clear that the objective of this particular trip was to train for the Special Olympics and during this trip the teachers acted within the purview of duties they assumed as agents and/or volunteers of Special Olympics. Therefore, any liability for any actions taken must be analyzed as the actions of agents or volunteers of the Special Olympics as governed by the release form.
[*6] The plaintiffs assert on appeal that the evidence established that Mrs. Childress had signed a number of “permission slips” and that in executing the release form, Mrs. Childress thought that she was merely signing another permission slip. We find this assertion unsupportable by the evidence. [**13] The evidence shows that the permission slips which Mrs. Childress signed were mimeographed copies of a handwritten form. The release form was not mimeographed and was copied from a printed document not handwritten, not even typed. Besides the difference facially, the content of the release is very different from the content of the permission slips. Mrs. Childress signed the document, and cannot, under these circumstances assert she thought she was signing a permission slip and not a release. Even if that were a valid assertion, it would make no difference in the outcome of the case. [HN8] Although notice of an exculpatory clause is a prerequisite to its validity, Dodge v. Nashville Chattanooga & St. Louis Railway Co., 142 Tenn. 20, 215 S.W. 274 (1919), a party’s failure to read does not constitute a lack of notice to that party, Dixon v. Manier, 545 S.W.2d 948, 949 (Tenn. App. 1976).
Of the plaintiffs, only Mrs. Childress, Todd’s mother signed the release form. The language, quoted above, is clear and unambiguous. Mrs. Childress acknowledged that Todd would be participating at his own risk. She further agreed to “release, discharge and [**14] indemnify Special Olympics, its . . . agents, and all volunteer personnel.” Therefore, the trial judge was correct in dismissing this case as to Mrs. Childress individually.
Mr. Childress did not himself sign the release form and there is no indication in the language of the form or in the manner in which Mrs. Childress signed that she did in fact, or was even authorized to, release or discharge the Special Olympics on Mr. Childress’ behalf. However, Mrs. Childress did clearly agree to indemnify the Special Olympics “from all liabilities for damage, injury or illness to the entrant or his/her property during his/her participation in or travel to or from any Special Olympics event.” Therefore, to the extent the defendants are liable to Mr. Childress, Mrs. Childress, as indemnitor, must compensate him.
Neither did the remaining plaintiff, Todd Childress, sign the release form himself. Had he done so, being an incompetent, incapable of understanding the nature of his action, the execution could not be given effect. See 44 C.J.S. Insane Persons § 49 (1945). But, according to the language of the release, Mrs. Childress, as his mother and natural parent, acknowledged on Todd’s behalf [**15] that he would be participating at his own risk.
[HN9] The status of guardians of incompetent persons is similar to that of guardians of infants, especially in view of courts of equity. Id. The general rule is that a guardian may not waive the rights of an infant or an incompetent. 39 Am. Jur.2d, Guardian & Ward § 102 (1968); 42 Am. Jur.2d, Infants § 152 (1969). Specifically, [HN10] the Supreme Court of Tennessee long ago stated that a guardian cannot settle an existing claim apart from court approval or statutory authority. Miles v. Kaigler, 18 Tenn. (10 Yerg.) 10 (1836). Spitzer v. Knoxville Iron, Co., 133 Tenn. 217, 180 S.W. 163 (1915). Tune v. Louisville & Nashville Railroad Co., 223 F. Supp. 928 (MD Tenn. 1963). It has also been held that [HN11] a guardian may not waive the statutory requirements for service of process on an infant or incompetent by accepting service of process on himself alone. Winchester v. Winchester, 38 Tenn. (1 Head) 460 (1858).
The courts of other states have recognized this general rule in a number of circumstances including those cited above. See e.g. Gibson v. Anderson, 265 Ala. 553, 92 So.2d 692, 695 (1956) [**16] (legal guardian’s acts do not estop ward from asserting rights in property); Ortman v. Kane, 389 Ill. 613, 60 N.E.2d 93, 98 (1945) (guardian cannot waive tender requirements of land sale contract entered into by ward prior to incompetency); Stockman v. City of South Portland, 147 Me 376, 87 A.2d 679 (1952) (guardian cannot waive ward’s property tax exemption); Sharp v. State, 240 Miss. 629, 127 So.2d 865, 90 A.L.R.2d 284 (1961) [*7] (guardian cannot waive statutory requirements for service of process on ward); Jones v. Dressel, 623 P.2d 370 (Colo. 1981) (ratification by parent of contract executed by child does not bind child); Whitcomb v. Dancer, 140 Vt. 580, 443 A.2d 458 (1982) (guardian cannot settle personal injury claim for ward without court approval); Natural Father v. United Methodist Children’s Home, 418 So.2d 807 (Miss. 1982) (infant not bound by evidentiary admissions of parent); Colfer v. Royal Globe Ins. Co., 214 N.J. Super. 374, 519 A.2d 893 (1986) (guardian [**17] cannot settle personal injury claim for ward without court approval).
In Mississippi, the rule was expressed in broad terms by the Supreme Court in Khoury v. Saik, 203 Miss. 155, 33 So.2d 616, 618 (1948): “Minors can waive nothing. In the law they are helpless, so much so that their representatives can waive nothing for them.” See also Parker v. Smith, 150 Miss. 849, 117 So. 249, 250 (1928).
The Supreme Court of Connecticut has specifically held that [HN12] an agreement, signed by one of the parents of a minor as a condition to his being allowed to attend a camp, waiving the minor’s claims against a camp for damages in the event of an injury was ineffective to waive the rights of the minor against the defendant camp. Fedor v. Mauwehu Council, Boy Scouts of America, Inc., 21 Conn. Sup. 38, 143 A.2d 466, 468 (1958). The Supreme Court of Maine reached the same conclusion in Doyle v. Bowdoin College, 403 A.2d 1206, 1208 n.3 (Me. 1979). In Doyle, the court held that if the agreement in question were a release, it would be ineffective because a parent cannot release the child’s [**18] action.
We believe the rule stated above is in keeping with the protection which Tennessee has afforded to the rights of infants and minors in other situations. We, therefore, hold that Mrs. Childress could not execute a valid release or exculpatory clause as to the rights of her son against the Special Olympics or anyone else, and to the extent the parties to the release attempted and intended to do so, the release is void.
The indemnity provisions of the release are on a similar footing. [HN13] Indemnification agreements executed by a parent or guardian in favor of tort feasors, actual or potential, committing torts against an infant or incompetent, are invalid as they place the interests of the child or incompetent against those of the parent or guardian. See Valdimer v. Mt. Vernon Hebrew Camps, Inc., 9 N.Y.2d 21, 210 N.Y.S.2d 520, 172 N.E.2d 283, 285 (1961). “Clearly, a parent who has placed himself in the position of indemnitor will be a dubious champion of his infant child’s rights.” Id. See also Ohio Casualty Insurance Co. v. Mallison, 223 Or 406, 354 P.2d 800, 802-803 (1960). We are aware that the indemnity [**19] agreements in the two cases just cited were executed after the cause of action had arisen. This fact does not change the rule, and [HN14] indemnity provisions executed by the parent prior to a cause of action in favor of a child cannot be given effect. Were the rule otherwise, it would circumvent the rule regarding exculpatory clauses and the policy of affording protection in the law to the rights of those who are unable effectively to protect those rights themselves.
We do not deny that there are good and logical reasons for giving effect to exculpatory and indemnification clauses executed by parents and guardians on behalf of infants and incompetents. Risk is inherent in many activities that make the lives of children richer. A world without risk would be an impoverished world indeed. As Helen Keller well said, “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.” Partnow, Quotable Woman, 173 (1977). Ultimately, this case is a determination of who must bear the burden of the risk of injury to infants and minors.
[**20] It is not our intention, nor do we feel the result of this case will be, to put a chill on activities such as the Special Olympics. [HN15] The law is clear that a guardian cannot on behalf of an infant or incompetent, exculpate or indemnify against liability those [*8] organizations which sponsor activities for children and the mentally disabled. If this rule of law is other than as it should be, we feel the remedy is with the Supreme Court or the legislature.
The judgment of the trial court is affirmed as to Joyce Childress individually, and her case is dismissed. As to Ira Childress individually, and William Todd, by and through his parents, Ira Childress and Joyce Childress, this case is reversed and remanded for such further proceedings as may be required. Costs on appeal are assessed against appellees.
CONCUR BY: TOMLIN
SEPARATE CONCURRING OPINION
TOMLIN, P.J., W.S.
I readily concur in the excellent opinion written by my colleague. In addition, I would hold that even if the law in this state was to the effect that Mrs. [**21] Childress could execute a valid release as to the rights of her son, the release, as executed, as I interpret it, attempts to release only the mother’s rights and not those of her son. For instance, the first sentence, acknowledging that young Childress was using the facilities at his own risk, begins with the language: “I, the undersigned, individually and on behalf of the above-named entrant . . . .” [emphasis added] However, the language purporting to release the Special Olympics and others reads as follows: “I, on my own behalf, hereby release, discharge and indemnify . . . .” [emphasis added] It is obvious that the language last used purports only to release the rights of the “undersigned,” i.e., Mrs. Childress, and not those of her handicapped son.
To win a lawsuit you must have evidence to support your claim.
State: Tennessee, United States District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee
Plaintiff: A.B. By Next Friend, Rachelle Burnett,
Defendant: Pacific Cycle, Inc. and Wal-Mart Stores East, L.P.,
Plaintiff Claims: Pacific was negligent in its design and manufacture of the bicycle, rendering the bicycle defective and unreasonably dangerous. Plaintiffs further allege that defendant Wal-Mart Stores East, L.P. was negligent in the assembly, marketing, distribution, and sale of the bicycle
Defendant Defenses: Motion to Dismiss for failure to state a claim
Holding: Case was dismissed
This case concerns a Mongoose DXR bicycle manufactured by Pacific Cycle and sold by Wal-Mart in Tennessee. The bike was purchased fully assembled. The bike was ridden regularly by the minor plaintiff for the next four years. No maintenance was performed on the bike during that time.
The bike was equipped with a quick release. No one admitted ever opening or removing the quick release. While camping, the minor plaintiff was riding the bicycle when he suffered injuries to his face and head. The plaintiff did not remember the accident.
The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, which was granted.
Analysis: making sense of the law based upon these facts.
The case was brought under the Tennessee Product Liability Act. To prove a claim under the act the plaintiff “must prove that the product in question was “in a defective condition or unreasonably dangerous at the time, it left the control of the manufacturer or seller.” A defective condition is one that renders a product “unsafe for normal or anticipatable handling and consumption.”
An unreasonably dangerous product under the act is defined as:
…dangerous to an extent beyond that which would be contemplated by the ordinary consumer who purchases it, with the ordinary knowledge common to the community as to its characteristics, or that the product because of its dangerous condition would not be put on the market by a reasonably prudent manufacturer or seller, assuming that the manufacturer or seller knew of its dangerous condition.
Consequently, the plaintiff must show a product is defective or unreasonable dangerous. The defect or unreasonable dangerous condition was the proximate cause and the cause, in fact, for the injury to the plaintiff. A mere malfunction of the product does not create liability. Nor is an injury to the plaintiff alone sufficient to prove a case.
Because the plaintiff could not remember the accident, there was no proof that a defect caused the injury to him.
Plaintiffs have not established that the alleged defect or unreasonably dangerous condition of the Bicycle was the proximate cause or the cause, in fact, of the accident. A.B. admits that he cannot remember whether the Bicycle’s front wheel came off before the accident, which would effectively have caused the accident, or after the accident.
There was also expert testimony from the defendant’s expert who stated the accident was not caused by the quick release.
So Now What?
This is a simple case that analysis the product liability requirements necessary to prove a case in Tennessee. The pivotal issue was no one saw the accident nor was the plaintiff able to remember the accident.
On top of that the plaintiff did not hire an expert witness to support or prove its claims. Consequently, the only evidence from an expert the court had in front of it was from the defendant’s expert.
No evidence to prove the case in front of the court, the court must rule for the defendant.
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A.B. By Next Friend, Rachelle Burnett, Plaintiffs, v. Pacific Cycle, Inc. and Wal-Mart Stores East, L.P., Defendants.
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF TENNESSEE
2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 55719
July 31, 2007, Filed
CORE TERMS: bicycle, summary judgment, dangerous condition, unreasonably dangerous, front wheel, manufacturer, unreasonably, remember, genuine, seller, campground, products liability, rode, matter of law, defective condition, entitled to judgment, genuine issue, issue of material fact, moving party, burden of proof, proximate cause, manufacture, deposition, non-moving, marketing, favorable, assembly, consumer, hearsay, wheel
COUNSEL: [*1] For A.B., next friend Rachelle Burnett, Plaintiff: Lori L Jessee, LEAD ATTORNEY, Bacon, Jessee & Perkins, Morristown, TN; Sidney W Gilreath, Timothy A Housholder, LEAD ATTORNEYS, Gilreath & Associates, PC, Knoxville, TN.
For Pacific Cycle, Inc., Wal-Mart Stores East, L.P., Defendants: Travis J Graham, LEAD ATTORNEY, Gentry, Locke, Rakes & Moore, LLP, Roanoke, VA.
JUDGES: Thomas A. Varlan, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
OPINION BY: Thomas A. Varlan
This civil action is before the Court on the defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. 12]. Plaintiffs, A.B. and next friend Rachelle Burnett (“Plaintiffs”), claim that A.B. was injured in a bicycle accident because of the negligence of the defendants. [Doc. 1] Specifically, Plaintiffs allege that defendant Pacific Cycle, Inc. (“Pacific”) was negligent in its design and manufacture of the bicycle, rendering the bicycle defective and unreasonably dangerous. [Id. at PP 9-13] Plaintiffs further allege that defendant Wal-Mart Stores East, L.P. (“Wal-Mart”) was negligent in the assembly, marketing, distribution, and sale of the bicycle in question. [Id. at PP 14-16] In their motion for summary judgment, the defendants argue that, pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 56, [*2] they are entitled to judgment as a matter of law because Plaintiffs cannot prove that the bicycle was defective or unreasonably dangerous, nor can they prove that A.B.’s injury was caused by the alleged defect. Plaintiffs have not responded to the instant motion and the time for doing so has passed. See L.R. 7.1(a), 7.2.
The Court has carefully reviewed the pending motion, along with the supporting brief in light of the entire record and controlling law. For the reasons set forth herein, the defendants’ motion for summary judgment will be granted.
I. Relevant Facts
In approximately December, 2000, Plaintiffs purchased a Mongoose DXR / MGX mountain bike (the “Bicycle”) from the Jefferson City, Tennessee Wal-Mart. [Doc. 1 at P 5] The Bicycle was fully assembled when purchased. [Doc. 13, Attachment 2 at p. 3] The Bicycle’s front wheel was equipped with a quick release mechanism which allows the front wheel to be detached. [Doc. 1 at P 8] Plaintiffs never manually removed the front wheel from the Bicycle. [Doc. 13, Attachment 2 at p. 3, 5] Other than simple maintenance, including inflating the tires and oiling the chain, no work was ever performed on the Bicycle while in Plaintiffs’ possession. [*3] [Id. at p. 4]
A.B. rode the Bicycle frequently in the following years, varying from once a week to once every few days. [Doc. 13, Attachment 4 at p. 5] A.B. normally only rode the Bicycle in Plaintiffs’ driveway, yard, and at a nearby church. [Id. at p. 4] In June, 2004, Plaintiffs went on a camping trip and brought the Bicycle. [Doc. 13, Attachment 3 at p. 6] The Bicycle was transported to the campground in the back of Plaintiffs’ truck. [Id.] The wheels were not removed while the Bicycle was in transit to the campground. [Id.] Plaintiffs arrived at the campground on the afternoon of June 24, 2004. [Id.] A.B. did not ride his bicycle on June 24, 2004, but did ride it some on June 25, 2004 with no difficulty. [Id.] On June 26, 2004, A.B. again rode his bicycle around the campground, but this time had an accident and sustained a severe injuries to his face and head. [Id.] A.B. remembers “riding [the Bicycle] back to the campsite, and then . . . looking over and seeing this big family, and then everything went black.” [Doc. 13, Attachment 4 at p. 7] A.B. does not remember how the accident happened. [Id.] The accident was witnessed by an unknown camper [Id. at p. 8], but there is no evidence [*4] of record that the unknown camper has ever been identified. At the time of the accident, A.B. was just riding along on a smooth, gravel road, and was not trying to perform any tricks. [Id. at p. 10] A.B. does not remember whether the front wheel of the Bicycle came off before or after the accident. [Id.]
II. Standard of Review
Under Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c), summary judgment is proper if “the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” The burden of establishing there is no genuine issue of material fact lies upon the moving party. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 330 n.2, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986). The court must view the facts and all inferences to be drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587, 106 S. Ct. 1348, 89 L. Ed. 2d 538 (1986); Burchett v. Kiefer, 310 F.3d 937, 942 (6th Cir. 2002). To establish a genuine issue as to the existence of a particular element, the non-moving party must point to evidence in the record upon which a reasonable jury could [*5] find in its favor. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986). The genuine issue must also be material; that is, it must involve facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law. Id.
The judge’s function at the point of summary judgment is limited to determining whether sufficient evidence has been presented to make the issue of fact a proper jury question, and not to weigh the evidence, judge the credibility of witnesses, and determine the truth of the matter. Id. at 249. Thus, “[t]he inquiry performed is the threshold inquiry of determining whether there is the need for trial — whether, in other words, there are any genuine factual issues that properly can be resolved only by a finder of fact because they may reasonably be resolved in favor of either party.” Id. at 250.
III. Tennessee Product Liability Act
Plaintiffs claim that Pacific was negligent in the design, manufacture, and sale of the Bicycle and caused the Bicycle to be in a defective or unreasonably dangerous condition at the time of the sale in violation of the Tennessee Product Liability Act (“TPLA”). Plaintiffs further allege that Wal-Mart was negligent in the assembly, marketing, [*6] distribution, and sale of the Bicycle and caused the Bicycle to be in a defective or unreasonably dangerous condition at the time of the sale in violation of the TPLA.
In order to recover against a manufacturer or seller under the TPLA, a plaintiff must prove that the product in question was “in a defective condition or unreasonably dangerous at the time it left the control of the manufacturer or seller.” Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-28-105(a). The TPLA defines a “defective” condition as “a condition of a product that renders it unsafe for normal or anticipatable handling and consumption.” Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-28-102(2). The TPLA defines “unreasonably dangerous” as a product
dangerous to an extent beyond that which would be contemplated by the ordinary consumer who purchases it, with the ordinary knowledge common to the community as to its characteristics, or that the product because of its dangerous condition would not be put on the market by a reasonably prudent manufacturer or seller, assuming that the manufacturer or seller knew of its dangerous condition.
Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-28-102(8). “These statutory definitions essentially codify the ‘consumer expectation test’ as the basis in Tennessee [*7] for assessing products liability.” Tatum v. Cordis Corp., 758 F. Supp. 457, 461 (M.D. Tenn. 1991).
“Thus, regardless of the theory, the plaintiff must show that something is wrong with a product that makes it defective or unreasonably dangerous.” Bradley v. Danek Medical, Inc., No. 96-3121, 1999 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 6449, at *25 (W.D. Tenn. Mar. 29, 1999) (citations omitted). Additionally, the plaintiff must show that the alleged defect or unreasonably dangerous condition of the product was both the proximate cause and the cause in fact of the plaintiff’s injury. Pride v. BIC Corp., 218 F.3d 566, 580 (6th Cir. 2000). “[A] device failure or malfunction will not, without more, render a manufacturer liable.” Bradley, 1999 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 6449, at *25 (citing Harwell v. American Medical Sys., Inc., 803 F. Supp. 1287, 1298 (M.D. Tenn. 1992)). “Moreover, the fact that plaintiff was injured is not proof of defect.” Id. (citing Fulton v. Pfizer Hosp. Products Group, Inc., 872 S.W.2d 908, 911 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1993).
In the instant case, Plaintiffs have presented no proof in support of their claims, instead relying solely on their complaint. The plaintiffs’ complaint, even if accepted as true for [*8] purposes of summary judgment, consists of allegations which are not acceptable proof under Rule 56. Mere notice pleading is not sufficient to defeat a well-pled summary judgment motion. See Garth v. University of Kentucky Medical Center, No. 92-5177, 1992 U.S. App. LEXIS 14677, at *3-4 (6th Cir. June 16, 1992) (“To survive a motion for summary judgment, [the plaintiff] was required to do more than rest on her pleadings; she was required to demonstrate that a genuine issue for trial existed.”); Teamsters Local Union No. 486 v. Andersen Sand and Gravel Co., No. 82-1124, 711 F.2d 1059, 1983 U.S. App. LEXIS 13044, at *6 (6th Cir. May 11, 1983) (“Where the district court has afforded a party opposing summary judgment under Rule 56 an opportunity to set forth specific facts showing there is a genuinely disputed factual issue for trial and that opportunity has been ignored, summary judgment is appropriate if the movant has carried his burden of proof.”). After reviewing the record in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs, the Court finds that Plaintiffs have failed to carry their burden and that the defendants’ motion for summary judgment should be granted.
Plaintiffs have not established that the alleged [*9] defect or unreasonably dangerous condition of the Bicycle was the proximate cause or the cause in fact of the accident. A.B. admits that he can not remember whether the Bicycle’s front wheel came off before the accident, which would effectively have caused the accident, or after the accident. [Doc. 13, Attachment 4 at p. 10] Nor is there any other evidence of record as to the cause of the accident. The Court notes that Ms. Burnett did indicate during her deposition that A.B. “told me before that he remembered the wheel coming off and it going forward,” but that testimony is inadmissible hearsay and not based upon Ms. Burnett’s own personal knowledge. Jacklyn v. Schering-Plough Healthcare Prods. Sales Corp., 176 F.3d 921, 927 (6th Cir. 1999) (“hearsay evidence may not be considered on summary judgment”).
In contrast, the defendants have presented expert testimony proving that the accident was not caused by quick release mechanism on the Bicycle’s front tire and that the Bicycle was not defective nor unreasonably dangerous. [Doc. 13, Attachment 3] Accordingly, the Court finds that Plaintiffs have not carried their burden of proof with respect to identifying a defect or dangerous condition [*10] of the Bicycle and showing that the defect or dangerous condition was the proximate cause and the cause in fact of the plaintiff’s injury, and thus defendants’ motion for summary judgment will be granted.
For the reasons set forth herein, the defendants’ motion for summary judgment [Doc. 12] will be GRANTED and Plaintiffs’ claims will be DISMISSED with prejudice.
s/ Thomas A. Varlan
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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.Posted: August 18, 2014
Tennessee’s duty to protect its citizens more than its duty to safety to invitees to its state parks is refreshing.
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
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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Morgan v. State of Tennessee, 2004 Tenn. App. LEXIS 62
Evelean Morgan v. State of Tennessee
COURT OF APPEALS OF TENNESSEE, AT NASHVILLE
2004 Tenn. App. LEXIS 62
November 3, 2003, Session
January 27, 2004, Filed
PRIOR HISTORY: [*1] Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Claims Commission Affirmed. Appeal from the Tennessee Claims Commission No. 99000125 W. R. Baker, Commissioner.
DISPOSITION: Affirmed and remanded.
COUNSEL: David H. Dunaway, LaFollette, Tennessee, for the appellant, Evelean Morgan.
Paul G. Summers, Attorney General and Reporter; Michael E. Moore, Solicitor General; and Christopher Michael Fancher, Assistant Attorney General, for the appellee, State of Tennessee.
JUDGES: WILLIAM C. KOCH, JR., P.J., M.S., delivered the opinion of the court, in which WILLIAM B. CAIN and PATRICIA J. COTTRELL, JJ., joined.
OPINION BY: WILLIAM C. KOCH, JR., P.J., M.S.
This appeal involves a fatal accident at the Colditz Cove State Natural Area in Fentress County. The mother of a woman who fell to her death from the bluff surrounding Northrup Falls filed a claim with the Tennessee Claims Commission. The State of Tennessee denied liability based on (1) the recreational use defense in Tenn. Code Ann. § 70-7-102 (1995), (2) its lack of actual or constructive notice of a dangerous condition, and (3) its assertion that the decedent’s fault exceeded its own. The commissioner granted the State’s motion for summary judgment. [*2] While he did not rely on the statutory recreational use defense, the commissioner determined that the State had no notice of a dangerous condition at the natural area, it was not reasonably foreseeable that intoxicated persons who were unfamiliar with the natural area would hike into the area of the falls in the middle of the night, and the decedent’s actions were the sole proximate cause of her death. The decedent’s mother has appealed. We have determined that the commissioner properly granted the summary judgment because, as a matter of law, (1) the State established a defense under Tenn. Code Ann. § 70-7-102, (2) the decedent’s estate presented no evidence that the State had actual or constructive notice of an allegedly dangerous condition on the trail in the natural area, and (3) the decedent’s fault far exceeded whatever fault could be attributed to the State.
Rochelle Copeland Zegilla and her two small children were living with her mother in mid-1997 following a separation from her husband. On Saturday evening, July 26, 1997, she told her mother that she was “going to go out for awhile,” and then she drove to the Top of the Mountain Lounge in [*3] Jamestown, Tennessee. After the lounge closed at midnight, Ms. Zegilla and four companions 1 decided to drive to a nearby VFW club. When they arrived at the club, however, they discovered that it had closed earlier than usual. After a brief discussion in the club parking lot, the group decided to continue their drinking and talking in the parking lot of the Colditz Cove State Natural Area.
1 Ms. Zegilla’s companions at the Top of the Mountain Lounge were Chris Smith, Loretta Johnson, Edward Raines, and Larry King.
The Colditz Cove State Natural Area is a 165-acre Class II natural-scientific area in Fentress County owned by the State of Tennessee. It is heavily wooded and contains the 75-foot Northrup Falls and a scenic gorge with interesting rock formations. 2 The area has been designated by statute as “worthy of perpetual preservation,” 3 and accordingly, improvements to the area are limited to foot trails, foot bridges, and primitive campgrounds 4 and “facilities as may be reasonably necessary . . .for [*4] the safe and proper management and protection of the area.” 5 In addition to a parking lot, the State had erected several signs and a gate and had constructed a 1.5 mile foot trail along the bluff overlooking Northrup Falls, as well as a scenic overlook. The State had not installed lights in the parking lot or along the foot trail.
2 Tenn. Code Ann. § 11-14-108(b)(2)(F) (Supp. 2003).
3 Tenn. Code Ann. § 11-14-105(2) (1999).
4 Tenn. Code Ann. § 11-14-106(a)(1)(B) (1999).
5 Tenn. Code Ann. § 11-14-106(a)(2).
All of the group except Mr. Raines had been drinking throughout the evening, and they continued drinking in the parking lot because Messrs. Smith and King had brought along a cooler of beer purchased earlier in the evening at Midway Qwick Stop. After talking for several minutes, the group decided to walk down the foot trail toward Northrup Falls in the pitch dark even though [*5] three of them, including Ms. Zegilla, had never been to Colditz Cove before. The only illumination they had was Mr. King’s flashlight.
When the group reached a fork in the trail, Mr. Raines and Ms. Johnson decided to walk no further and sat near a trash container to talk and drink. Ms. Zegilla and Messrs. Smith and King kept walking along the trail toward Northrup Falls. After they stopped to drink and talk, Mr. King asked Mr. Smith to shine the flashlight into the bushes to enable him to find a place to urinate. Mr. King walked into the bushes and, on his return, he fell over the bluff into the gorge below.
Mr. Smith yelled, “Larry has fallen off,” and called to Mr. Raines for assistance. Mr. Raines made his way down the trail to Mr. Smith and Ms. Zegilla. After they all called out to Mr. King to no avail, Mr. Raines decided to go for help and took the flashlight to help make his way back up the foot path to the parking lot. Ms. Zegilla and Mr. Smith, now joined by Ms. Johnson, continued to call for Mr. King. Mr. Smith decided to start a fire with his shirt to make some light. After his shirt went out, Ms. Zegilla somehow fell over the bluff. The rescue workers who arrived at the [*6] scene at approximately 1:30 a.m. on Sunday, July 27, 1997, found the lifeless bodies of both Mr. King and Ms. Zegilla in the water at the bottom of the falls. An autopsy revealed that Ms. Zegilla’s blood alcohol level was .18%.
On July 23, 1998, Evelean Morgan, Ms. Zegilla’s mother and her personal representative, filed a claim for $ 500,000 with the Tennessee Claims Commission asserting that the State had violated Tenn. Code Ann. § 9-8-307(a)(1)(C) (Supp. 2003) by negligently creating or maintaining a dangerous condition at Colditz Cove State Natural Area. 6 The State moved to dismiss the claim on the ground that it was shielded from liability by the recreational use statute [Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 70-7-101, -105 (1995)]. After the claims commissioner denied its motion, the State filed an answer denying Ms. Morgan’s negligence claims. The State asserted, as affirmative defenses, (1) that Tenn. Code Ann. § 70-7-102 shielded it from liability, (2) that it had no actual or constructive notice of a dangerous condition at Colditz Cove State Natural Area and that it was not reasonably foreseeable that intoxicated [*7] persons who were unfamiliar with the natural area would hike into the area of the falls in the middle of the night, and (3) that Ms. Zegilla’s own negligence “contributed in excess of 50% to the cause of her death.”
6 Ms. Morgan also filed a civil damage action in the Circuit Court for Fentress County against Ms. Johnson, Messrs. Smith and Raines, and the estate of Mr. King.
In February 2002, following lengthy and somewhat contentious discovery, the State moved for a summary judgment on two grounds – Tenn. Code Ann. § 70-7-102 and its assertion that Ms. Zegilla’s “negligence was equal to or greater than [the] negligence of the State, if any.” 7 In April 2002, Ms. Morgan responded by asserting that the State was not entitled to a judgment on either ground because the State was grossly negligent and because its negligence was greater than Ms. Zegilla’s. The claims commissioner held a hearing on the State’s motion for summary judgment after conducting his own personal inspection of [*8] the Colditz Cove State Natural Area without the lawyers or parties present. On June 5, 2002, the commissioner filed an order granting the State’s motion for summary judgment. While the commissioner declined to base his decision on Tenn. Code Ann. § 70-7-102, he determined that the undisputed evidence demonstrated as a matter of law that Ms. Morgan had not shown that she could prove notice and foreseeability as required by Tenn. Code Ann. § 9-8-307(a)(1)(C) and that Ms. Zegilla was “preponderantly negligent in her own death.” 8 The commissioner later denied Ms. Morgan’s request for a hearing before the entire claims commission. Ms. Morgan has appealed.
7 The State based the latter assertion on what it called the “step in the dark” rule, i.e., that stepping into an unfamiliar dark area constitutes the proximate cause of injuries sustained by falling down stairs hidden in the darkness. Eaton v. McLain, 891 S.W.2d 587, 594 (Tenn. 1994); Goodman v. Memphis Park Comm’n, 851 S.W.2d 165, 171 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1992).
8 We construe this finding to be that Ms. Zegilla’s fault exceeded the fault of the State, if any. The claims commissioner stated later in its order that “the sole proximate cause of Ms. Zegilla’s death was her own actions.”
THE STANDARD OF REVIEW
The standards for reviewing summary judgments on appeal are well-settled. [HN1] Summary judgments are proper in virtually any civil case that can be resolved on the basis of legal issues alone. Fruge v. Doe, 952 S.W.2d 408, 410 (Tenn. 1997); Byrd v. Hall, 847 S.W.2d 208, 210 (Tenn. 1993); Pendleton v. Mills, 73 S.W.3d 115, 121 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2001). They are not, however, appropriate when genuine disputes regarding material facts exist. Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56.04. Thus, a summary judgment should be granted only when the undisputed facts, and the inferences reasonably drawn from the undisputed facts, support one conclusion – that the party seeking the summary judgment is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. Pero’s Steak & Spaghetti House v. Lee, 90 S.W.3d 614, 620 (Tenn. 2002); [*10] Webber v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 49 S.W.3d 265, 269 (Tenn. 2001).
[HN2] The party seeking a summary judgment bears the burden of demonstrating that no genuine dispute of material fact exists and that it is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. Godfrey v. Ruiz, 90 S.W.3d 692, 695 (Tenn. 2002); Shadrick v. Coker, 963 S.W.2d 726, 731 (Tenn. 1998). To be entitled to a judgment as a matter of law, the moving party must either affirmatively negate an essential element of the non-moving party’s claim or establish an affirmative defense that conclusively defeats the non-moving party’s claim. Byrd v. Hall, 847 S.W.2d at 215 n. 5; Cherry v. Williams, 36 S.W.3d 78, 82-83 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2000).
[HN3] Once the moving party demonstrates that it has satisfied Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56’s requirements, the non-moving party must demonstrate how these requirements have not been satisfied. Bain v. Wells, 936 S.W.2d 618, 622 (Tenn. 1997). Mere conclusory generalizations will not suffice. Cawood v. Davis, 680 S.W.2d 795, 796-97 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1984). The non-moving party must convince the [*11] trial court that there are sufficient factual disputes to warrant a trial (1) by pointing to evidence either overlooked or ignored by the moving party that creates a factual dispute, (2) by rehabilitating evidence challenged by the moving party, (3) by producing additional evidence that creates a material factual dispute, or (4) by submitting an affidavit in accordance with Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56.07 requesting additional time for discovery. McCarley v. West Quality Food Serv., 960 S.W.2d 585, 588 (Tenn. 1998); Byrd v. Hall, 847 S.W.2d at 215 n. 6. A non-moving party who fails to carry its burden faces summary dismissal of the challenged claim because, as our courts have repeatedly observed, the “failure of proof concerning an essential element of the cause of action necessarily renders all other facts immaterial.” Alexander v. Memphis Individual Practice Ass’n, 870 S.W.2d 278, 280 (Tenn. 1993).
[HN4] A summary judgment is not appropriate when a case’s determinative facts are in dispute. However, for a question of fact to exist, reasonable minds must be able to differ over whether some alleged occurrence or event did or did not happen. Conatser v. Clarksville Coca-Cola Bottling Co., 920 S.W.2d 646, 647 (Tenn. 1995); [*12] Harrison v. Southern Ry. Co., 31 Tenn. App. 377, 387, 215 S.W.2d 31, 35 (1948). If reasonable minds could justifiably reach different conclusions based on the evidence at hand, then a genuine question of fact exists. Louis Dreyfus Corp. v. Austin Co., 868 S.W.2d 649, 656 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1993). If, on the other hand, the evidence and the inferences to be reasonably drawn from the evidence would permit a reasonable person to reach only one conclusion, then there are no material factual disputes and the question can be disposed of as a matter of law. Godfrey v. Ruiz, 90 S.W.3d at 695; Seavers v. Methodist Med. Ctr., 9 S.W.3d 86, 91 (Tenn. 1999); Beaudreau v. General Motors Acceptance Corp., 118 S.W.3d 700, 703 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2003).
[HN5] Summary judgments enjoy no presumption of correctness on appeal. BellSouth Advertising & Publ’g Co. v. Johnson, 100 S.W.3d 202, 205 (Tenn. 2003); Scott v. Ashland Healthcare Ctr., Inc., 49 S.W.3d 281, 285 (Tenn. 2001). Accordingly, appellate courts must make a fresh determination that the requirements of Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56 have been satisfied. [*13] Hunter v. Brown, 955 S.W.2d 49, 50-51 (Tenn. 1997). We must consider the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, and we must resolve all inferences in the non-moving party’s favor. Godfrey v. Ruiz, 90 S.W.3d at 695; Doe v. HCA Health Servs., Inc., 46 S.W.3d 191, 196 (Tenn. 2001). When reviewing the evidence, we must determine first whether factual disputes exist. If a factual dispute exists, we must then determine whether the fact is material to the claim or defense upon which the summary judgment is predicated and whether the disputed fact creates a genuine issue for trial. Byrd v. Hall, 847 S.W.2d at 214; Rutherford v. Polar Tank Trailer, Inc., 978 S.W.2d 102, 104 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1998).
THE APPLICATION OF TENN. CODE ANN. § 70-7-102
The State’s defense predicated on Tenn. Code Ann. § 70-7-102 figures prominently in this appeal even though the claims commissioner expressly declined to base his decision on this defense. 9 For her part, Ms. Morgan asserts that the commissioner erred by “failing and refusing” [*14] to rule on this defense. While the State does not specifically assert that the commissioner erred by not addressing this defense, 10 it asserts that it did not owe a duty to Ms. Zegilla by virtue of Tenn. Code Ann. § 70- 7-102. Accordingly, we have decided to address the applicability of Tenn. Code Ann. § 70-7-102 to this case head on.
9 The commissioner’s cryptic rulings regarding Tenn. Code Ann. § 70-7-102 are not easy to reconcile. He stated:
The Commission renders its ruling without considering the applicability of the state Recreational Use Immunity Statute. The individuals involved in this incident were using the State property for recreation, thus the Recreational Use Statute applies.
As for gross negligence, if the facts involved the Recreational Use statute alone, in absence of the other three factors discussed heretofore, then this claim should probably proceed to trial. Although the Commission believes there was not any gross negligence, it does not base its conclusion on the Recreational Use Immunity statute.
Because the commissioner stated twice that he was not basing his decision on Tenn. Code Ann. § 70-7-102, we will take him at his word.
10 The State could have raised this issue pursuant to Tenn. R. App. P. 13(a).
At common law, property owners could be held liable for injuries to persons who were using their property, with or without their permission, for recreational purposes. Beginning in the 1950s, state legislatures began to enact statutes to limit property owners’ liability when persons were using their property for recreational purposes. 11 The Tennessee General Assembly enacted one of these statutes in 1963. 12 As originally enacted, the statute was applicable only to private landowners and excluded from its coverage the “willful or malicious failure to guard or warn against a dangerous condition, use, structure or activity.”
11 James C. Becker, Landowner or Occupier Liability for Personal Injuries and Recreational Use Statutes: How Effective Is the Protection?, 24 Ind. L. Rev. 1587, 1587-88 (1991).
12 Act of Mar. 15, 1963, ch. 177, 1963 Tenn. Pub. Acts 784, codified at Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 70-7-101, -105 (1995).
[*16] In 1987, the Tennessee General Assembly amended the recreational use statute in two significant ways that are directly applicable to this case. First, it amended the statute to explicitly apply to real property owned by governmental entities. 13 Second, it broadened the exemption to cover “gross negligence, willful or wanton conduct.” 14
13 Act of May 7, 1987, ch. 448, § 8, 1987 Tenn. Pub. Acts 897, 899, codified at Tenn. Code Ann. § 70-7-101(2)(B).
14 Act of May 7, 1987, ch. 448, § 5, 1987 Tenn. Pub. Acts 897, 898, codified at Tenn. Code Ann. § 70-7-104(1).
The operation of the recreational use statutes is straightforward. Tenn. Code Ann. § 70-7-102 [HN6] is an affirmative defense available to persons who fit within the definition of “landowner” in Tenn. Code Ann. § 70-7-101(2). Parent v. State, 991 S.W.2d 240, 242 (Tenn. 1999); Bishop v. Beckner, 109 S.W.3d 725, 728 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2002). [*17] Landowners may assert a Tenn. Code Ann. § 70-7-102 defense if they prove that the injured person was engaged in a recreational activity 15 at the time of the injury. Plaintiffs may defeat this affirmative defense in essentially three ways: (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 exceptions in Tenn. Code Ann. § 70-7-104 do not create new independent causes of action against the landowner. Rather, they enable a plaintiff to pursue its negligence claim by negating a landowner’s Tenn. Code Ann. § 70-7-102 defense. Parent v. State, 991 S.W.2d at 242-43.
15 The applicable recreational activities are identified in Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 70-7-102, -103.
[HN7] Applying Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 70-7-101 [*18] , -105 to a particular case requires a three-step analysis. First, the court must determine whether the party asserting the Tenn. Code Ann. § 70-7-102 defense is a landowner. Second, the court must determine whether the activity in which the injured party was engaged at the time of the injury is a recreational activity. Third, the court must determine whether any of the exceptions in Tenn. Code Ann. § 70-7-104 are applicable to the case. See Parent v. State, 991 S.W.2d at 243. If the activity is recreational and no Tenn. Code Ann. § 70-7-104 exceptions apply, the landowner is shielded from liability by Tenn. Code Ann. § 70-7-102. If, however, the activity is recreational, but one of the exceptions applies, the landowner may be liable.
Based on the undisputed facts, there can be no dispute (1) that the State, as a governmental entity, is a “landowner” under Tenn. Code Ann. § 70-7-101(2)(B), (2) that Ms. Zegilla was engaged in a recreational activity because she was “hiking” or “sightseeing” when she fell to her death, [*19] and (3) that the land on which Ms. Zegilla was killed was not exempt from coverage of the statute. 16 Thus, the only remaining question with regard to the application of the recreational use statute is whether one of Tenn. Code Ann. § 70-7-104’s exceptions applies to this case. Ms. Morgan insists that the exception for gross negligence in Tenn. Code Ann. § 70-7-104(1) applies.
16 Ms. Morgan argued before the claims commissioner that improvements in state natural areas and parks were somehow exempt from Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 70-7-101, -105. However, both the Tennessee Supreme Court and this court have recognized that [HN8] the recreational use statute may apply to state parks and wildlife management areas. Parent v. State, 991 S.W.2d at 241; Rewcastle v. State, 2002 Tenn. App. LEXIS 943, No. E2002-00506-COA-R3-CV, 2002 WL 31926848, at *1 (Tenn. Ct. App. Dec. 31, 2002) (No Tenn. R. App. P. 11 application filed).
[HN9] Gross negligence [*20] is negligent conduct reflecting a reckless disregard for the safety of others. Davidson v. Power Bd., 686 S.W.2d 581, 586 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1984); Odum v. Haynes, 494 S.W.2d 795, 807 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1972). It does not require a particular state of mind as long as it creates an extremely unjustified risk to others. 1 DAN B. DOBBS, THE LAW OF TORTS § 147, at 351 (2001). It differs from ordinary negligence only in degree, not in kind. W. PAGE KEETON, PROSSER & KEETON ON THE LAW OF TORTS § 34, at 212 (5th ed. 1984). 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. Inter-City Trucking Co. v. Daniels, 181 Tenn. 126, 129-30, 178 S.W.2d 756, 757 (1944); Bennett v. Woodard, 60 Tenn. App. 20, 31-32, 444 S.W.2d 89, 94 (1969).
[HN10] Determining whether particular conduct rises to the level of gross negligence is ordinarily a question of fact. 3 STUART M. SPEISER ET AL., THE AMERICAN LAW OF TORTS § 10:05, at 368 (1986) (“SPEISER”); see also Adams v. Roark, 686 S.W.2d 73, 76 (Tenn. 1985) (gross negligence [*21] determined from the facts alleged in the complaint). However, it may be decided as a matter of law when the material facts are not in dispute and when these facts, and the conclusions reasonably drawn from them, would permit a reasonable person to reach only one conclusion. Leatherwood v. Wadley, 121 S.W.3d 682, ___, 2003 WL 327517, at *8-9 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2003) (affirming summary judgment dismissing gross negligence claim); Buckner v. Varner, 793 S.W.2d 939, 941 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1990) (affirming summary judgment dismissing gross negligence claim); Fellows v. Sexton, 46 Tenn. App. 274, 282, 327 S.W.2d 391, 394 (1959) (granting a judgment notwithstanding the verdict on a gross negligence claim).
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 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, [*22] while perhaps appropriate at Dollywood, would have been entirely unwarranted and unnecessary at a natural area such as Colditz Cove. Accordingly, we have determined that the record, as a matter of law, supports the claims commissioner’s conclusion that “there was not any gross negligence.” 17 The State was simply not acting recklessly with disregard of the safety of persons entering the natural area.
17 Ms. Morgan asserts in her brief that “the State of Tennessee knew that at Northrop [sic] Falls . . . there was a cliff that eroded into a commonly used path which suddenly dropped at a ninety degree angle approximately one hundred feet and that it posed a deadly, dangerous condition.” This is the only assertion in her papers that approaches an allegation of gross negligence. We have searched the record for substantiation of this claim and have found none. There is no evidence that any of the trails in Colditz Cove had dangerously eroded on July 26, 1997. There is no evidence that the State had actual or constructive notice of any dangerous erosion along any of the trails in the natural area. There is likewise no evidence that either Ms. Zegilla or Mr. King fell to their deaths at a spot on the trail that had eroded.
[*23] Because the State was not grossly negligent, it was entitled to assert a defense predicated on Tenn. Code Ann. § 70-7-102. Therefore, we have concluded, based on the undisputed facts, that the recreational use statute shields the State from liability for Ms. Zegilla’s death and that the State was entitled to a summary judgment dismissing her claims on this ground alone.
THE STATE’S LIABILITY UNDER TENN. CODE ANN. § 9-8-307(a)(1)(C)
Despite our conclusion that the State has established an affirmative defense under Tenn. Code Ann. § 70-7-102 as a matter of law, we will also address Ms. Morgan’s assertion that the claims commissioner erred by concluding that she had failed to demonstrate that she would be able to prove that the State was liable for her daughter’s death under Tenn. Code Ann. § 9-8-307(a)(1)(C). We have concluded that the undisputed facts also support the commissioner’s conclusion that the State was entitled to a judgment as a matter of law because Ms. Morgan had not demonstrated that she would be able to prove the essential elements of her claim.
[*24] [HN11] The State is not the insurer of the safety of persons on its property. Byrd v. State, 905 S.W.2d 195, 197 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1995). It is, however, liable to these persons to the same extent that private owners and occupiers of land are liable, Sanders v. State, 783 S.W.2d 948, 951 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1989), because Tenn. Code Ann. § 9-8-307(a)(1)(C) has imposed this common-law duty on the State. Parent v. State, 991 S.W.2d at 242. 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 claimant under this subsection must establish the foreseeability of the risks and notice given to the proper state officials at a time sufficiently prior to the injury for the state to have taken appropriate measures.
Based on this statute, the State, like a private landowner, has a duty to exercise reasonable care under the circumstances to prevent foreseeable injuries to persons on the premises. Eaton v. McLain, 891 S.W.2d at 593-94. This duty is [*25] grounded on the foreseeability of the risk involved. To recover, a claimant must prove that the injury was a reasonably foreseeable probability. Dobson v. State, 23 S.W.3d 324, 331 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1999).
Tenn. Code Ann. § 9-8-307(a)(1)(C) required Ms. Morgan to prove that Ms. Zegilla was injured in a manner that was reasonably foreseeable and that the State had actual or constructive notice of the dangerous condition that caused Ms. Zegilla’s death in time to take “appropriate measures.” The claims commissioner properly concluded that she failed on both counts.
The record contains no factual, legal, or policy basis for concluding that the State should have foreseen that intoxicated persons who 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.
Likewise, the record contains no evidence meeting the standards in Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56.04 and Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56.06 that the improvements to Colditz Cove are either inherently dangerous 18 or, as we have already pointed out, that the State had actual or constructive notice of any particular [*26] dangerous condition in the natural area that caused Ms. Zegilla’s death.
18 Ms. Morgan’s lawyer asserted in the proceeding below that he had consulted an architect who “felt” that the Colditz Cove State Natural Area was “unduly dangerous” and that “the majority of the defects were certainly foreseeable and could have been rectified at a relatively modest capital investment.” While the record contains an unauthenticated letter from this architect summarizing his impressions of the improvements in the natural area, it does not contain the architect’s affidavit or deposition stating these conclusions. The architect’s letter does not meet the requirements in Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56.04 and Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56.06 for evidentiary materials that may be used to support or oppose a motion for summary judgment.
COMPARISON OF MS. ZEGILLA’S FAULT WITH THE STATE’S FAULT
As a final issue, Ms. Morgan asserts that the claims commissioner erred by determining that Ms. Zegilla’s fault exceeded the State’s fault. [*27] She bases her argument on the assertion that the State’s “gross negligence” should somehow count for more in a comparative fault analysis. We have determined that this argument has no merit for two reasons. First, we have already concluded that the undisputed facts demonstrate, as a matter of law, that the State was not grossly negligent. Second, even if the States could somehow be considered grossly negligent, its fault would still be compared with Ms. Zegilla’s fault. Conroy v. City of Dickson, 49 S.W.3d 868, 873 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2001). A majority of the courts in comparative fault jurisdictions permit gross negligence to be compared to ordinary negligence. 3 SPEISER, § 13:25, at 764; 1 ARTHUR BEST, COMPARATIVE NEGLIGENCE LAW & PRACTICE § 4.40 (1999); Restatement (Third) of Torts: Apportionment of Fault § 7 cmt. b (1999).
[HN12] The allocation of fault is ordinarily a question of fact for the jury or the trial court sitting without a jury. Brown v. Wal-Mart Discount Cities, 12 S.W.3d 785, 789 (Tenn. 2000). The task of allocating fault should be taken from the fact-finder only when it can be determined beyond question (or alternatively, when reasonable [*28] minds cannot differ) that the plaintiff’s fault is equal to or greater than the defendant’s. Staples v. CBL & Assocs., Inc., 15 S.W.3d 83, 91-92 (Tenn. 2000); Eaton v. McLain, 891 S.W.2d at 589; Kim v. Boucher, 55 S.W.3d 551, 556-57 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2001). The procedural avenues for obtaining a decision that the plaintiff’s fault exceeds the defendant’s as a matter of law are governed by the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure. The question may be raised using (1) a motion for summary judgment under Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56, (2) a motion for directed verdict governed by Tenn. R. Civ. P. 50.01, and (3) a post-trial motion for a judgment as a matter of law governed by Tenn. R. Civ. P. 50.02. Henley v. Amacher, 2002 Tenn. App. LEXIS 72, No. M1999-02799-COA-R3-CV, 2002 WL 100402, at *6 (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 28, 2002) (No Tenn. R. App. P. 11 application filed).
Ms. Zegilla’s voluntary intoxication on the evening of July 26, 1997 does not relieve her from the responsibility of her own negligence. Kirksey v. Overton Pub, Inc., 739 S.W.2d 230, 235 (Tenn. 1987); Schwartz v. Johnson, 152 Tenn. 586, 592, 280 S.W. 32, 33 (1926). [*29] 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. Louisville & Nashville R.R. v. Hall, 5 Tenn. Civ. App. 491, 502 (1915). 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. Worley v. State, 1995 Tenn. App. LEXIS 755, No. 02A01-9312-BC-00267, 1995 WL 702792, at *6 (Tenn. Ct. App. Nov. 28, 1995) (No Tenn. R. App. P. 11 application filed).
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 [*30] far exceeded any fault that may reasonably be attributed to the State. Accordingly, the claims commissioner properly concluded the State was not liable to Ms. Zegilla’s estate because her fault exceeded any fault that could be attributed to the State.
We affirm the order dismissing the Tenn. Code Ann. § 9-8-307(a)(1)(C) claim of Ms. Zegilla’s estate against the State and remand the case to the Tennessee Claims Commission for whatever further proceedings may be required. We tax the costs of this appeal to Evelean Morgan for which execution, if necessary, may issue.