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Victim Cannot Sue Because He Saw Hazard Two Weeks Before Accident

The Georgia Court of Appeals has made it more difficult for persons injured on other people’s property to bring a premises liability claim. In a March 30 decision, a divided appeals court upheld a trial judge’s decision to grant summary judgment in the case of a man injured while working on someone else’s land. The dissenting judges accused the majority of usurping the traditional fact-finding role of the jury in such cases.

Seago v. Estate of Earle

The plaintiff in this case was hired to install a fence. To complete the work, the plaintiff routinely had to drive to a tool shed at the back of the neighboring property. On his first day on the job, the plaintiff noticed there was a chain up between two trees, restricting access to the client’s property. Although the plaintiff noticed the chain was down during subsequent trips to and from the shed, about two weeks into the job, he was traveling in his four-wheeler through the area when he collided with the chain, which was now up again. The collision caused the plaintiff serious injuries.

The plaintiff filed a premises liability claim against the property owner, arguing the chain constituted a hazard. (The owner died while the case was pending, but his estate remains a defendant.) The trial court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, however, holding since the plaintiff was previously aware of the chain, his knowledge of the hazard was “equal or superior knowledge” to that of the owner, thereby defeating the premises liability claim as a matter of law. The plaintiff appealed this decision.

By a vote of 5-2, the Georgia Court of Appeals agreed with the trial judge and the defendant. Judge Michael P. Boggs, writing for the majority, said once the plaintiff saw the chains on his first day, he was legally presumed to have knowledge of the hazard during all subsequent visits to the same area: “While [the plaintiff] testified that he had not seen the chain installed across the road for approximately two weeks, he was aware of its existence and could see it well enough from a distance to observe whether it was up or down during the course of the two-week period.” Judge Boggs also noted the plaintiff “was driving at high speed through an unfamiliar area, while distracted by looking for tools,” thereby creating a “heightened duty of care” for his own safety.

In dissent, Presiding Judge Anne Elizabeth Barnes said both the majority and the trial court jumped the gun in granting summary judgment to the defendant. “To conclude that summary judgment was proper because Seago admitted that he had on one occasion seen a chain placed between two trees,” Judge Barnes said, “despite his claim that on all other occasions, including the day of the injury, the chain was not present, and the fact that only the [defendant] had control over when and if the chain was in place, usurps the clearly defined role of the jury.”