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Georgia Court Says Funeral Attendee can Proceed With Slip-and-Fall Claim Against Church

Personal injury claims based on premises liability under Georgia law generally revolve around two questions. First, did the property owner have knowledge of the hazard that caused the plaintiff’s injuries? Second, did the plaintiff have “equal or superior” knowledge of the same hazard, thereby absolving the defendant of any potential liability?

Stewart v. Brown

Here is a simple illustration of how courts examine these questions in practice. This is taken from a recent decision by the Georgia Court of Appeals. In this case, a trial judge granted summary judgment to the defendant in a slip-and-fall case. The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court and returned the case for trial on the merits.

The plaintiff was attending her mother’s funeral at a church in Cook County, Georgia. As she was exiting the service, a church deacon instructed the plaintiff not to use the same entrance she used to come into the church. Instead, he told her to go through a rear door, leading to two flights of stairs.

While descending those stairs, the plaintiff lost her balance and fell down the staircase onto a concrete floor, thereby breaking her leg. The plaintiff subsequently sued the pastor of the church for damages arising from premises liability. Specifically, the plaintiff alleged that the steps constituted a dangerous condition because they lacked a handrail and were too steep and narrow and “not uniform” in size.

Although the pastor conceded in court that the church could have done a better job maintaining the stairs, he nonetheless denied any legal liability. Before the trial court he maintained he lacked actual or constructive knowledge of the dangerous condition of the stairs, and in any event the plaintiff “failed to exercise ordinary care for her own safety.”

While the trial court agreed with the pastor and awarded summary judgment, the Court of Appeals held that the plaintiff introduced sufficient evidence to warrant sending her claims to a jury. For one thing, the pastor testified during a deposition that prior to the plaintiff’s accident “there had been discussions in the church about installing a handrail to improve the safety of the stairs.” This was enough for a jury to infer that the steps were, in fact, a hazardous condition and that the defendant had knowledge of said hazard.

As to whether the plaintiff had equal knowledge, she testified in her own deposition that “she had never used the stairs in question prior to her fall.” This alone creates a presumption she lacked equal knowledge. At this stage of the case, the defendant presented no evidence to rebut the plaintiff’s testimony. Furthermore, the plaintiff stated “she could not even see the second step due to the steepness and narrowness of the stairs.” This suggests she could not have discovered the hazardous condition through the exercise of ordinary care. As a general rule, the Court of Appeals noted it is generally inappropriate to dismiss a premises liability claim on summary judgment when there is any disputed evidence regarding the plaintiff or defendant’s respective liability.