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Georgia Supreme Court Rules “Free” Admission Deprives Child Victim of Right to Sue

Many parents would be happy to see a public park or attraction that admits their children for free. But thanks to a recent decision by the Supreme Court of Georgia, those parents may want to think twice about the legal cost of “free” admission. According to the Court, if you do not pay for your child to get in, you might be surrendering any right to sue for damages if he or she is injured on the property.

Mayor and Alderman of Garden City v. Harris

This case involves a child who was 6 years old at the time of her injury. Her parents took her to attend a youth football game in a public facility owned by Garden City in Chatham County. The facility normally charges a $2 admission fee, but children ages 6 and under do not have to pay. So, while the parents paid for their own admission, they did not have to pay for their child.

During the game, the child was injured when she slipped and fell between the bench seats in the stadium. She fell approximately 30 feet to the ground and sustained serious injuries. Her parents subsequently sued the City for negligence.

Unlike normal cases involving premises liability, there are special laws involved when the defendant is the owner of property open to the public for “recreational purposes,” such as sporting events. Georgia’s Recreational Property Act (RPA) states that a premises owner who “invites or permits without charge any person to use the property for recreational purposes” does not “assume responsibility for or incur liability for any injury” to said person. In plain English, if someone allows you on his or her land for free to take part in a recreational activity, the land owner assumes no legal risk for your safety.

When recreational property owners charge admission fees, then the RPA does not apply. The question that arose in this case was as follows: What happens when a recreational property owner normally charges admission but the specific person who was injured was admitted for free? Does the RPA excuse the property owner from liability under this specific set of facts?

A divided Georgia Supreme Court held that it did. Justice Harold D. Melton said the “plain language” of the RPA defeated the child’s claim in this instance. Melton noted that the law “specifically and unambiguously references ‘any person’ who is not charged a fee to use a landowner’s property for recreational purposes as being such a ‘person’ to whom the landowner does not owe a duty of care. Since the child was not charged a fee to enter the stadium, Melton said “the City was shielded from liability” for her injuries “as a matter of law.”

Two justices dissented. They argued that the majority departed from existing case law, which established that the key test for RPA immunity was whether the owner generally charged a fee “for admission to the property” and “not whether a specific individual was charged.” The dissent suggested the majority’s view would lead to “the patently absurd result of permitting landowners to cherry-pick groups of potential plaintiffs, resulting in similarly injured individuals having unequal rights of recovery.”