Articles Posted in Premises Liability

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There are two significant hurdles a plaintiff must clear when bringing a premises liability claim: First, there must be proof that a “hazard” existed on the defendant’s property that caused the plaintiff’s injury; and second, the plaintiff must show the defendant had “actual or constructive knowledge” of this hazard.

Green v. Big Lots Stores, Inc.

Here is a recent example in which a plaintiff managed to clear the first hurdle but not the second. This case, Green v. Big Lots Stores, Inc., involves a slip-and-all accident that occurred in August 2015. The plaintiff and his wife went to the defendant’s store to do their grocery shopping. They entered the store just as it was opening for the day. According to the plaintiff, he noticed a store manager “pushing a push broom in the aisles.”

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There are a number of situations in which an individual or business may be held liable for a personal injury caused by someone else. Two of the more common ones involve the legal concepts of respondeat superior and premises liability. The first, respondeat superior, refers to cases in which an employee commits a tort in the course of carrying out the employer’s business. The second, premises liability, means a property owner had superior knowledge of a safety hazard that caused an injury to a person lawfully on the premises.

Manners v. 5 Star Lodge and Stables, LLC

Neither of these rules means a business is automatically liable for an accident just because it involves one of its employees or occurs on its land. Here is an example taken from a recent Georgia Court of Appeals decision. In this case, a woman was accidentally shot while on the premises of a lodge. The Court of Appeals, upholding an earlier ruling by a trial judge, held that the lodge was not legally responsible for the plaintiff’s shooting or injuries.

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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.

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It is well understood that in Georgia, a store owner is liable for injuries caused by hazardous conditions on store premises. But what exactly do we mean by “premises”? For instance, if you are walking down the aisle of a supermarket and slip on a puddle of water, there is no question that you are on the store owner’s premises. But suppose your slip-and-fall occurred in the parking lot adjacent to the store? Is the store owner still legally responsible?

Boyd v. Big Lots Stores, Inc.

A July 31 decision by the Georgia Court of Appeals helps explain how the law works in this area. This case involved a personal injury claim brought against a well-known national retailer. The plaintiff was shopping at one of the defendant’s stores, which is located in a larger retail shopping center. As the plaintiff exited the store and headed for her car, she slipped and fell in the parking lot. She suffered injuries as a result of the fall and sued the store owner for damages.

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A key question in most premises liability cases is, “What constitutes a hazard?” After all, not every object that may obstruct a customer’s path is is necessarily dangerous. It is important to establish why a particular object constitutes a hazard–which leads the follow-up question of whether or not the management of the premises took reasonable steps to identify and correct that hazard.

Powell v. Variety Wholesalers, Inc.

Consider this ongoing federal lawsuit in Statesboro that centers on a clear plastic clothes hanger. One day in 2015, the plaintiff and her granddaughter went shopping at a department store owned by the defendant. The two women used one of the store’s changing rooms to try on clothes. As they exited the changing area, the plaintiff “slipped and fell” on the clear hanger, which according to her was “lying in the middle of the aisle.”

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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.

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Just as auto insurance provides liability coverage in the event a driver is sued for causing an accident, most Georgia homeowners’ insurance policies protect the homeowner in the event that someone is injured on their property. For example, if the homeowner was negligent in maintaining their driveway and someone has a trip-and-fall accident, the homeowners’ insurance carrier could be on the hook for the victim’s medical bills and other damages. As with any kind of insurance claim, it is important for the owner to promptly notify the homeowners’ insurance carrier anytime there is an accident that may lead to litigation.

Travelers Indemnity Company of America v. Jones

If there is any way for an insurance company to avoid paying a personal injury claim, it will take it. Consider this recent decision by a federal judge in Athens. This case arises from particularly tragic circumstances. A 23-year-old woman was going to a party at a house in Athens. But as she was still seated in her car, she was struck and killed by a stray bullet, the byproduct of a gun fight between two groups on the property.

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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.

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Premises liability laws ensure that property owners are held responsible for hazardous conditions that injure their invited guests or other members of the public who are lawfully on the premises. With respect to invitees, the property owner must exercise “ordinary care in the keeping the premises and approaches safe.” If the injured party is a “licensee” – someone who is permitted on the property but is not considered a customer or “servant” of the owner – then the owner is only liable for causing “willful or wanton injury.”

Harrison v. Legacy Housing, LP

Many premises liability cases turn on the status of the injured plaintiff, i.e. whether they an invitee or licensee. A recent decision by a federal judge in Macon offers a helpful illustration of this distinction. The plaintiff in this case was helping a friend perform work in an empty warehouse. After the plaintiff sustained a serious injury, he attempted to sue the warehouse’s owner under the theory he was an “invitee.”

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Your parents probably told you, “Watch where you’re going!” more than a few times when you were kid. This is not just good advice. It is also an important reminder that you are expected to be aware of your surroundings at all times. From a legal standpoint, your awareness or lack thereof may be a critical issue in a personal injury case, particularly when you have alleged negligence on the part of a property owner.

Cherokee Main Street, LLC v. Ragan

Consider this recent decision by the Georgia Court of Appeals. This is a car accident case that originated in Cherokee County a little over four years ago. On the day in question, the plaintiff was shopping at a department store in a local shopping center. After leaving the store, she walked down a sidewalk past another store–one of the defendants in this case. The sidewalk had a ramp leading into the parking lot. But there was no formal crosswalk markings.