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Avoiding Socially Awkward Situations May Constitute an “Assumption of Risk” in Slip and Fall Cases

Even in Georgia, the winters are still prone to icy conditions. When walking through public parking lots and shopping centers in such conditions, you need to be aware of your surroundings, especially if you get into a slip and fall accident. If you subsequently attempt to hold the owner of the property liable for your injuries, the question of your “equal” or “superior” knowledge of any hazards may prove critical at trial.

Naval Store Suppliers, Inc. v. Croft

Recently, the Georgia Court of Appeals granted summary judgment to the defendants in a slip and fall case arising from an accident in the winter of 2014. On the day in question, it was approximately 25 degrees outside, and there was a noticeable water spigot located near the entrance of the defendant’s store. The spigot was open and the gushing water had formed a mixture of ice and water that clearly posed a hazard to anyone using the entrance.

The plaintiff entered the store without incident but immediately notified an employee of the open spigot. The employee told the plaintiff “don’t go back out that way,” and directed her to use a different exit that was normally reserved for employees only. About 30 minutes later, the plaintiff was preparing to leave and attempted to use the other door as instructed, but it was locked.

The plaintiff did not want to ask anyone to open the door because the employee she initially spoke with said he could get fired for doing so. So the plaintiff then decided to use the same entrance she came in. That is when she slipped and fell.

Although the trial court rejected the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, the Court of Appeals reversed. The appeals court noted the “undisputed evidence” showed the plaintiff and the defendant each had “equal knowledge that ice on the ground outside the store entrance presented a hazard to anyone who entered or exited through that door.” Under Georgia law, the plaintiff voluntarily “assumed the risk” of using the icy entrance. She therefore could not hold the defendant liable for her injuries.

The Court also rejected the plaintiff’s argument that she was effectively “coerced” into using the hazardous entrance because the door to the alternate door was locked. The plaintiff could have asked an employee to unlock the door, the Court noted. She chose not to do so because she was afraid the employee she initially spoke to would get into trouble for allowing her to use an employee-only entrance. The plaintiff’s “decision to risk transversing a known hazard to follow her conscience does not amount to coercion,” the Court said.

There are, in fact, other cases in Georgia in which this “coercion” argument has worked. For example, if a supervisor had directly ordered the employee not to allow the plaintiff to use the alternate door, that might present a plausible claim for coercion. But again, the fact that the plaintiff chose not to raise the issue meant she assumed the risk of using the other entrance that she knew to be hazardous. To put it another way, it is not coercion if someone chooses to navigate a hazard when seeking a safer route would be “socially awkward.”