While many premises liability claims are based on the existence of a physical hazard—i.e., a customer slips and falls on a puddle of water—there are also cases in which a property owner may be liable for the criminal acts of third parties that cause personal injury to a patron. Recently, the Georgia Court of Appeals addressed the issue of how long a crime victim has to file such a claim.
Harrison v. McAfee
In June 2011, a group of masked men robbed a restaurant in Macon, Georgia. During the robbery, one of the assailants shot a restaurant patron. To date, none of the alleged criminals have been identified or arrested.
More than two years later, in August 2013, the injured patron filed a premises liability lawsuit against the owner of the restaurant, alleging the latter was negligent in maintaining his property. Normally, personal injury lawsuits in Georgia are subject to a two-year statute of limitations. On that ground, the defendant moved to dismiss the plaintiff’s lawsuit.
Georgia law also provides that the two-year statute of limitations may be delayed, or “tolled,” in cases in which the victim was injured during a crime. In such cases, the statute of limitations does not start to run until “until the prosecution of such crime or act has become final or otherwise terminated,” as long as that is not more than six years from the date of the original crime. But in previous cases, the Georgia courts have held this tolling only applies to personal injury claims brought against the perpetrators of the crime and not third parties such as a restaurant owner sued for premises liability. For that reason, the trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s lawsuit here as barred by the statute of limitations.
But on appeal, the Georgia Court of Appeals agreed with the plaintiff that its prior interpretation of the tolling provision was incorrect. The court explained that Georgia law provides “any cause of action in tort” brought by a crime victim is subject to the tolling provision. This includes “any cause of action in tort, without limitation, so long as that cause of action is brought by a crime victim and ‘arises out of the facts and circumstances relating to the commission of such alleged crime.’”
The court noted the plaintiff “is the victim of an alleged crime” committed in the State of Georgia. Even though his lawsuit is not against the actual criminals, “but for the crime, there would be no cause of action” against the owner of the restaurant. Even though the Court of Appeals previously held in a number of cases that the tolling provision did not apply to these types of premises liability lawsuits, “the reasoning of our prior decisions on this question is unsound, which weighs strongly in favor of overturning them.”
The appeals court did not rule on the merits of the plaintiff’s lawsuit. The only question here was whether the trial court was wrong to grant summary judgment to the defendant based on the statute of limitations. Having held that it was, the Court of Appeals returned the case for trial.