When bringing a premises liability claim in Georgia, a plaintiff does not have to establish that the defendant had actual knowledge of the hazard that caused the plaintiff’s injury. Instead, the plaintiff can show the defendant had “constructive” knowledge. Basically, this means the defendant should have known about the hazard, either because there was a prior history of similar accidents, or the defendant failed to maintain a reasonable inspection program for their property.
Knoeferl v. Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, Inc.
Here is an illustration of what this means in practice. This is taken from a recent decision by a federal judge in Augusta in an ongoing personal injury lawsuit. The plaintiff had gone to the defendant’s restaurant for lunch. While walking back to her car following her meal, the plaintiff fell over an “indentation in the pavement,” causing her to break her femur. She subsequently sued the defendant for its alleged negligence in failing to properly maintain its parking lot.
The defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing that it had no constructive notice of the alleged parking lot hazard. The defendant maintained that there had never been a similar trip-and-fall accident in the 11 years that it owned the parking lot. While the company had no formal written inspection policy for the lot, it said that employees were told to walk around the at least twice a day to identify “debris and other potential hazards.” The restaurant manager also testified that he conducted a separate inspection every day, including the date of the plaintiff’s accident.
The judge overseeing the case held that that the mere existence of an inspection policy was not enough for the defendant to prevail on summary judgment. The question was not whether the defendant had an inspection policy, but rather whether the policy was “reasonable as a matter of law.” It was impossible for the court to answer that at the summary judgment stage. Based on the current evidence, the judge said, a jury could reasonably find the defendant’s procedures were “inadequate” since they missed the “uneven pavement” that caused the plaintiff’s fall.
The judge also rejected the defendant’s attempt to shift blame for the accident to the plaintiff. As a general rule in Georgia, a plaintiff must exercise “ordinary care” for his or her own safety and may be barred from recovering in a premises liability case if he or she had “equal knowledge” of the hazard. But the evidence introduced thus far did not support such a finding, the judge said. To the contrary, the plaintiff’s daughter had dropped her off in front of the restaurant when they entered, so the plaintiff had not traversed the exact spot where she fell beforehand. While the defense further pointed to purported inconsistencies in the plaintiff’s statements regarding the events leading up to the accident, the judge said that still did not justify dismissing her case at the summary judgment stage.
As always, it is important to note that a denial of summary judgment is not a ruling on the merits of the case. The judge here simply decided that the plaintiff present sufficient factual questions to justify sending the case to a jury.