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Georgia Appeals Court Orders New Trial in Personal Injury Case Where Defendant Admitted Liability

Personal injury litigation is often complicated, but there are some simple rules that everyone should understand. For example, when a lawsuit enters pre-trial discovery, each party may serve written requests for admission on the opposing party or parties. Oftentimes, requests for admission simply help establish basic facts about a case—e.g., “The defendant was driving a red Honda Accord.” The other party can file a written response admitting or denying each request. But if a party declines to file a response within a specified time period, either 30 or 45 days under Georgia law, then the statement is deemed admitted by the non-responsive party.

Vis v. Harris

Here is a recent case where requests for admission played a critical role. This is a slip-and-fall case. The plaintiff said she was injured when she tripped on a defective piece of carpet at an Atlanta hotel. She named a hotel employee, the hotel’s owner, and its management company as defendants.

Of interest here are the requests for admission sent to the management company. The plaintiff’s attorney served a lengthy set of requests, including statements like, “You’re at fault for the accident causing damages to the plaintiff,” “You did not have a proper inspection procedure in place on the date of the accident,” and “You were warned of the defect [in the carpet] prior to the accident.”

The management company never responded to these statements. By Georgia law then, that constituted an admission of each and every request. When all three defendants then moved for summary judgment—arguing the carpet defect should have been obvious to the plaintiff, and none of the defendants had “superior knowledge” of the hazard—the plaintiff used the admitted statements as evidence in response. The trial court ultimately denied summary judgment and ordered the case tried before a jury.

When the trial began, the plaintiff’s attorney read the admitted statements to the jury before calling his first witness. The defense did not object. But the trial judge was still concerned. After both parties rested their cases, the judge told counsel he never accepted the management company’s admissions as evidence. The judge instructed the plaintiff’s attorney not to refer to the admissions during closing arguments. The jury subsequently returned a verdict in favor of the three defendants.

The Georgia Court of Appeals, in an opinion issued on September 24, said the judge acted incorrectly. The management company’s admissions were properly admitted into evidence once the plaintiff’s attorney read them aloud to the jury and the defendants did not object. It was unnecessary for the trial judge to specifically rule on their admissibility. Furthermore, since the defendants never moved to strike the admissions from the record, it was inappropriate for the judge to restrict the plaintiff’s attorney from referring to the admissions during closing arguments.

The defendants argued the verdict was still valid because the judge never actually instructed the jury to disregard the admitted statements. The Court of Appeals disagreed, concluding, “we cannot say the [trial judge’s] error was harmless.” The plaintiff is therefore entitled to a new trial.