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Appeals Court Upholds $125,000 Verdict Against Auto Body Shop After Car Lift Crushes Customer’s Foot

Under Georgia law, a property owner who invites members of the public onto their premises can be held liable for “damages to such persons” caused by the owner’s “failure to exercise ordinary care in keeping the premises and approaches safe.” Normally, this duty cannot be delegated to third parties. If the owner leases the property to another–that is to say, a landlord gives “full possession and complete control” to a tenant–then the tenant assumes the responsibility for keeping the premises safe for invited guests.

Sherwood v. Williams

Recently, the Georgia Court of Appeals addressed a case involving the relative liability of landlord and tenant for an injury caused to a third-party invited guest. The landlord here owned an auto body shop. He leased part of the shop to a tenant. More precisely, the lease covered the “front repair and maintenance area” of the shop, which included three repair bays, together with associated office space and parking. The lease also included an indemnification clause, holding the landlord “harmless for any liability or damages” caused by the tenant’s operations “or otherwise” to any third party.

The plaintiff in this case was a customer who needed his car repaired. The landlord and tenant were both working that day. The landlord was busy with another vehicle, so the tenant agreed to look at the car and tell the landlord “what was wrong so he could repair it.” The tenant then took the car to in one of the three bays he leased and used a car lift to raise the vehicle for inspection.

During the course of the tenant’s inspection, he asked the plaintiff to retrieve the vehicle’s dipstick, which the plaintiff had removed and placed in his trunk. As the plaintiff did so, the tenant lowered the lift, which crushed the plaintiff’s foot. The plaintiff subsequently sued the landlord and the tenant for negligence.

The case was tried before a jury, which determined the landlord–both individually and through his company–was 66% liable for the accident. The tenant was found 32% liable, with the remaining 2% assigned to the plaintiff himself. The jury awarded $125,000 in total damages. It also determined the landlord could not recover its share of the damages from the tenant under the indemnification clause of the lease.

The landlord appealed the verdict. The Court of Appeals affirmed, however, finding no legal error on the part of the trial judge or the jury. The appeals court noted that, notwithstanding the written language of the lease, there was evidence that the landlord “retained control of the premises and authorized or encouraged invitees to remain on the shop floor.” This meant the jury could reasonably find that the landlord “remained reasonable for exercising ordinary care in keeping the premises safe” for customers like the plaintiff. In any event, the lease did not “expressly indemnify” the landlord “for the consequences of his own negligence.” It only said he could not be held liable for the tenant’s negligence.