Premises liability refers to a property owner’s responsibility for certain torts that occur within said property. A common example is a slip-and-fall accident. Let’s say you are shopping and slip on a puddle of water in the middle of the store, causing you to fall and injure yourself. The store owner may be liable if you can prove he or she was negligent in failing to notice and clean up the puddle.
How does premises liability work if the property is rented? In other words, if the store owner leases its space from another entity, such as a shopping center, is the landlord also liable for injuries to patrons? As a general rule, the answer is no. Georgia law expressly states that a landlord who has “fully parted with possession” of a property–i.e., leased it to a tenant–is not “responsible to third persons for damages” arising from the tenant’s negligence. There are, however, two exceptions to this rule. First, a landlord can be held liable for “defective construction” of the leased building itself. Second, the landlord may be liable for “damages arising from the failure to keep the premises in repair.”
Pajaro v. South Georgia Bank
This first exception–defective construction–was the subject of a November 4 decision by the Georgia Court of Appeals. The plaintiff in this case is actually the tenant, who leased space for his medical office from the defendant. One day the plaintiff exited his second-floor office onto an exterior staircase when the staircase collapsed. The plaintiff fell “more than 15 feet to the ground,” according to court records and suffered serious injuries.
The plaintiff subsequently sued the landlord for damages. Before the trial court, the plaintiff presented the expert opinion of a licensed commercial and residential contractor, who testified that “construction defects had caused the staircase to collapse,” specifically the fact it “had been built with non-galvanized nails that had rusted over time.” Additionally, the staircase’s wooden posts “had not been properly sealed and caulked, leading them to rot.”
Although the landlord did not actually construct the building, the plaintiff’s expert testified that a “pre-purchase structural inspection” would have caused the landlord to discover the defective staircase.“ The trial judge rejected the expert’s opinion on this point as “irrelevant” and ultimately granted summary judgment to the defendant. On appeal, the Court of Appeals said it was “not convinced that the expert’s opinion is irrelevant” and reversed the grant of summary judgment on the issue of defective construction. (The appeals court separately affirmed summary judgment for the defendant on the separate issue of “failure to keep the premises in repair.”)
The Court of Appeals said it was undisputed that the plaintiff’s witness was an “expert in residential construction.” A jury could therefore choose to “credit his opinion that an inspection would have disclosed the construction defects.” The court took no position on the merits of the plaintiff’s claim, however, but only ruled that summary judgment at this stage of the case was inappropriate.