When Can a Rainy Day Lead to a Premises Liability Lawsuit?

Premises liability refers to a landowner’s legal duty to “exercise ordinary care in keeping the premises and approaches safe,” according to the Georgia Supreme Court. In other words, if you own a building and invite members of the public in, you must take reasonable precautions to protect your guests from a foreseeable harm. You are not required to insure the public’s safety from all possible or existing hazards, but you must exercise a certain degree of due diligence, i.e. inspecting your property regularly to see if any dangerous conditions exist.

Duff v. Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia

The key to any premises liability claim is establishing the existence of a hazardous condition. This generally requires a careful examination of the facts in a given case. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to assessing the existence of a hazardous condition.

Yet some trial courts try to jump the gun. For example, the Georgia Court of Appeals recently chided a trial judge for rushing to enter summary judgment for the defendant in a premises liability case when the plaintiff presented a claim that warranted going to trial. The judge declared there was “no hazard,” but the appeals court was not so quick to agree.

The case itself began with a rainy day. The plaintiff, a college student, went to school one morning on what started out as a clear day. The plaintiff stayed within one building for her first two classes, which lasted a little over three hours. During this period, it apparently rained, although the plaintiff did not know that since her classrooms did not have windows.

As she was leaving the building to go to her third class, the plaintiff slipped and fell on “rainwater that had been brought by other students entering the building,” according to court records. Since the fall injured the plaintiff, she sued the school for negligence based on premises liability, i.e. failing to identify and clean up the rainwater in the building.

The trial court said the plaintiff had no case because there was always a known risk due to “some accumulation of water on the floor” during a “rainy day.” The Court of Appeals did not see it that way. In fact, the appeals court observed, it was undisputed the plaintiff had no prior knowledge it was raining outside–so there was no way should could have expected an accumulation of water inside the building.

In addition, the plaintiff presented significant evidence that there was more than just a little bit of water on the floor. The plaintiff herself testified there was “standing water” in the building at the time of her fall. Other eyewitnesses confirmed there was “a lot” of water. While some of the testimony conflicted on this point, the Court of Appeals said it was up for a jury, not a judge ruling on a summary judgment motion, to resolve. All the plaintiff had to do at this stage was present enough evidence to show there was a disputed question of fact as to whether there was a hazardous condition, which she did.

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