Atlanta Apartment Owner Not Responsible for Repair Contractor’s Injuries

Premises liability refers to a property owner’s responsibility for any hazard on his or her land that causes injury to someone. In Georgia, premises liability is based on the owner’s “superior knowledge” of the hazard. That is, if the owner knew about a dangerous condition in advance and the injured person did not, the victim may sue for damages.

Forest Cove Apartments, LLC v. Wilson

Likewise, if the victim had “equal knowledge” of the hazard, Georgia courts will dismiss any premises liability claim. Here is a recent example. This case involves a contractor hired to repair several apartment units in an Atlanta public housing complex. Throughout 2011, the contractor and her crew repaired the joist supports under the subfloors of 26 apartments.

About a month after completing those repairs, the apartment manager asked the contractor to return and look at another unit where there was a reported mold problem. The contractor inspected the apartment, which she said “reeked of mold” and noted a seven-to-eight inch hole in the bathtub. Based on this assessment, the manager asked the contractor to inspect the subfloor underneath the bathroom floor. She did so the next day and discovered “horrendous” damage beyond the scope of what she initially expected.

While working in the damaged bathroom, the joist the contractor was standing on gave way, and she “fell into the downstairs kitchen onto an open hot oven, sustaining multiple injuries.” She subsequently filed a premises liability lawsuit against the owner and the manager of the apartment complex. Before the trial court, the defendants argued the contractor had “equal knowledge” of the defective floor joist and therefore they could not be held responsible. The judge rejected the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, but a three-judge panel of the Georgia Court of Appeals reversed, holding the contractor could not recover any damages.

The Court of Appeals agreed with the defendants the contractor “was aware of the hazardous condition of the floor joists before her fall,” as she had previously repaired the exact same defects in 26 other units in the defendants’ complex. She also personally inspected the unit where the accident occurred. Indeed, the court noted the contractor was speaking on the phone with the apartment just before the accident, informing him about the multiple problems with the unit. “Given this combined uncontroverted evidence,” the court said, “it is clear that [the contractor] had at least equal knowledge of the hazardous condition of the floor joists before she fell from the upstairs bathroom.”

The Court also added while an employer must generally keep his premises safe for employees, “an independent contractor is expected to determine for himself whether his place of employment is safe or unsafe, and ordinarily may not recover against the owner for injuries sustained in the performance of the contract.” Given the contractor here was responsible for removing damaged subfloors as part of their repair work, she alone was responsible for ensuring the safety of the work site.

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