Court of Appeals: Contractor Not Liable for Man’s Death Under Georgia’s “Open Well” Statute

The Georgia Court of Appeals recently issued a decision, Handberry v. Manning Forestry Services, LLC, addressing an unusual personal injury claim. This case involved a man who died after falling into an abandoned well. The plaintiff, the victim’s widow, subsequently sued a number of defendants that she alleged were negligent in failing to address the hazard posed by the well prior to her husband’s death.

According to court records, the victim was driving a four-wheeler on private property with the permission of the owner. At some point, one of the four-wheeler’s tires “entered a well that was hidden by vegetation.” The vehicle overturned, throwing the victim into the well, where he sustained fatal injuries.

The defendants in this case included several companies that previously performed work on the property in question. The plaintiff based her claims on a specific Georgia statute, OCGA § 44-1-14, which deals with the “abatement of hazard” from an “abandoned well or hole.” In this context, an abandoned well is “any man-made opening on the surface of the earth which is 10 feet or more in depth and which has not been used for a period of 60 days.”

The statute goes on to say that “[w]henever it is brought to the attention of any person that an open abandoned well or hole” exists on “private property,” that person must “immediately inform the governing authority of the county in which the hazard exists,” in addition to notifying the owner of the property itself. If the owner then fails to fill the hole or otherwise “abate” the hazard, the county is responsible for doing so and may later recover its costs from the owner.

In this case one of the defendants, Manning Forestry Services, had planted a number of pine trees on the property in question in 2010, about five years before the accident. In a deposition, Manning’s owner testified that “he did not do any of the preparation work” on the property and he never personally observed any open holes or wells. As far as he knew, no other employee or contractor working for Manning at the time had seen the well. Had anyone located a well, the Manning representative said they would have “flagged” it and reported it, as required by law.

In response, the plaintiff produced an expert witness, who reviewed the property and suggested that, based on the relative positions of Manning employees at the time they were planting their trees, they should have seen the open well.

The Court of Appeals rejected this “circumstantial” evidence, however, and affirmed a lower court’s grant of summary judgment to Manning. The appeals court noted that OCGA § 44-1-14 requires “actual knowledge” of an open well. At best, the expert offered a “speculative” opinion based on observations made several years after Manning worked on the property.

Because the Court of Appeals determined the plaintiff’s evidence of actual knowledge was insufficient to survive summary judgment, it did not address the trial court’s additional finding that OCGA § 44-1-14 does not actually provide a legal basis for bringing a personal injury claim.