Personal injury cases in Georgia follow what is known as the “contributory negligence” rule. This basically means that the defendant may try and argue the plaintiff was partially responsible for their injuries. A jury will then assess the relative fault of each party and reduce the plaintiff’s damages accordingly.
In some cases, the judge may decide that the plaintiff voluntarily and knowingly assumed a particular risk. In these situations, the judge will not submit the case to the jury. Instead, the court will dismiss the plaintiff’s complaint based on this “assumption of risk” defense.
Thompkins v. Gonzalez-Nunez
A recent Georgia Court of Appeals decision, Thompkins v. Gonzalez-Nunez, demonstrates a situation in which judges will invoke the assumption-of-risk rule. This case addresses an April 2016 accident. The plaintiff was working for a tire company at the time. His job was to load and unload trucks. Normally, this job required the plaintiff to take down a number of metal bars inside the trailer of a truck. These bars are necessary to help secure the truck’s cargo.
On the day of the accident, the plaintiff opened a trailer owned by one of the defendants in this case. The plaintiff then noticed that “one of the metal bars was hanging down on the left side of the trailer.” A manager decided to get a tool to remove the hanging bar safely, but the plaintiff decided to try and remove it himself without waiting for his manager.
A few minutes later, the driver of the truck entered the trailer and tried to help the plaintiff remove the bar. As they worked together, the bar fell down and injured the plaintiff’s finger. The plaintiff subsequently sued the driver and owner of the truck, alleging their negligence caused his injury.
In response, the defendants involved the assumption of risk defense. A trial court rejected the defense’s motion for summary judgment on this particular issue. But the Court of Appeals reversed, holding that under these facts, the plaintiff was not entitled to recover any damage from either defendant.
As the Court of Appeals explained, there are three things a defendant needs to show when asserting assumption of risk: First, the plaintiff had “actual knowledge of the danger”; second, the plaintiff “understood and appreciated the risks associated with such danger”; and finally, the plaintiff “voluntarily exposed himself to those risks.”
In this case, the appeals court said the plaintiff checked all three of these boxes. He knew the bar could slip and fall on his hand before attempting to remove it. Yet he did not take any additional safety measures to protect himself. Indeed, he made multiple attempts to remove the bar without even bothering to wait for his boss to return with proper tools. Under the circumstances, the Court of Appeals said the plaintiff “assumed the risk of the injury that followed.”
The Court further explained that this was not a situation where the plaintiff could argue mere contributory negligence as opposed to assumption of risk. In contributory negligence cases, the question is typically whether or not the plaintiff has a “comprehension of general, non-specific risks.” Here, the plaintiff had “specific” knowledge of the “particular risk of harm associated with the activity or condition” that caused his injury.