Under Georgia law, a property owner must exercise “ordinary care” in maintaining safe conditions for persons invited onto the premises. If an invited person subsequently alleges he or she suffered an accident or injury due to the owner’s failure in this regard–a premises liability claim–then the burden is on the accuser to first prove the owner “had actual or constructive knowledge of the hazard that caused the accident.” Once the accuser meets this burden, then the onus shifts to the owner to prove that it was the accuser’s action or inaction that caused the injury.
Daugharty v. FDIC
A pending case before a federal judge in Valdosta illustrates how premises liability law works in practice. The plaintiff here visited a local bank in 2011 to close an account. This was her first time visiting this particular branch of the bank. She entered and exited the bank through a walkway leading from the parking lot to the bank’s doors. On her return trip after exiting the bank, the woman “tripped over a protruding lip of concrete in the walkway, fell to the ground, and injured herself.”
The woman sued the bank under Georgia’s premises liability law. The bank itself was later placed into federal receivership, so the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation is now the actual defendant. The FDIC removed the case from state to federal court, although Georgia law still applies.
On October 17, U.S. District Judge Hugh Lawson denied the FDIC’s motion for summary judgment. A court only grants summary judgment when the moving party can demonstrate (1) there’s no genuine dispute as to the facts of the case and (2) the party is therefore entitled to “judgment as a matter of law.” The court does not actually weigh the evidence in deciding a motion for summary judgment; it simply views the evidence, and draws all necessary inferences, in the light most favorable to the non-moving party.
Judge Lawson determined that summary judgment was not appropriate in this case because there were still significant factual disputes regarding the basic elements of the woman’s premises liability claim. As noted above, the initial burden is on the plaintiff to show the property owner had “actual or constructive knowledge” of the hazard, in this case the protruding concrete lip on the walkway. The bank manager had previously stated he was aware of “several uneven places in the walkway” prior to the woman’s accident. From this fact alone, Judge Lawson said, a jury might conclude the bank had constructive knowledge of the hazard.
Assuming, then, that the bank had knowledge, the next question is, did the woman have equal knowledge and did she exercise “reasonable care” for her own safety? Judge Lawson said that, too, remained a disputed question for a jury. The judge said he could not “as a matter of law” find the woman knew about the hazard before her accident. The available facts, however, strongly suggested she did not (or could not) have seen the concrete lip after exercising ordinary care.