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Court Allows Elevator Accident Case to Proceed to Trial

In a premises liability case—that is, a personal injury lawsuit arising when someone is injured on another person’s property—the plaintiff must generally prove that the property owner possessed “superior knowledge” of the defective condition that caused the alleged injury. In other words, the danger must be known to the owner but not to the plaintiff. This does not mean a property owner in every case can simply plead ignorance to a hazardous condition. Nor does it mean that he or she can try to shift the blame to a third party, such as a contractor who worked on the property.

Hill v. Cole CC Kenesaw GA, LLC

An ongoing Georgia case illustrates how the law may protect injury victims in certain situations. The plaintiff in this case worked in an office building. On the evening in question, the plaintiff and a co-worker entered an elevator to leave the building. The elevator stopped at a point such that it was not level with the floor. The plaintiff subsequently tripped, hit her on head on a railing inside the elevator, and had to be taken to the hospital.

Under Georgia law, the owner of a building must report any elevator accidents to the state’s Department of Labor “on the same day or by noon of the next work day.” Here, the accident was reported the next day, but when an inspector arrived, for some reason he inspected another elevator rather than the one that caused the plaintiff’s injury. Nor was the defective elevator apparently removed from service.

The plaintiff sued the owner and manager of the office building, as well as the company hired to perform elevator maintenance for the owner. All three plaintiffs moved for and received summary judgment from a trial judge. But in two separate opinions, the Georgia Court of Appeals reversed summary judgment and returned the case for trial.

The first opinion, issued in November 2014, addressed the elevator subcontractor’s liability. The subcontractor argued that it had no prior knowledge of the defective elevator and had, in fact, performed maintenance on the day of the accident. The Court of Appeals said that was insufficient to avoid summary judgment because there was also evidence, as noted above, that the subcontractor failed to strictly comply with Georgia law in reporting the accident.

The second opinion, issued in November 2015, dealt with the owner and property manager. Both argued that they could not be held liable for the plaintiff’s injuries because they had no knowledge of any elevator problems beforehand. As the Court of Appeals explained, a building owner has a legal duty in Georgia to “exercise extraordinary diligence on behalf of himself and his agents to protect the lives and persons” riding an elevator within said building. This duty cannot be delegated or waived. If there is even the slightest hint of negligence on the part of the elevator subcontractor, then the building owner and manager may be held “vicariously liable.” Accordingly, all three defendants must face trial.