Georgia Court of Appeals Allows Anti-Gang Activity Lawsuit to Proceed

In the 1990s, the General Assembly adopted the Georgia Street Gang Terrorism and Prevention Act (GSGTPA). This law gives prosecutors and local governments powerful tools to address “criminal gang activity” in their jurisdictions. The Act also permits victims of gang violence to file personal injury lawsuits for triple damages. The law does not specify the particular types of lawsuits that can be filed, or even who the possible defendants must be, only that the “finder of fact”–i.e., a jury–must first decide if the plaintiff’s action is “consistent with the intent of the General Assembly” when it adopted the GSGTPA.

Star Residential, LLC v. Hernandez

The Georgia Court of Appeals recently addressed the application of the GSGTPA to a personal injury lawsuit, Star Residential, LLC v. Hernandez, brought by a man against the owner and operator of his apartment complex. Specifically, the plaintiff said he was “shot from behind in an unprovoked attack and robbery” committed by three unidentified men. The plaintiff was paralyzed as a result of his gunshot injuries.

So, what does any of this have to do with the GSGTPA? Well, in his lawsuit the plaintiff alleged that “his apartment complex was used by criminal street gangs for the purpose of conducting gang activity,” and that the defendants “enabled” such activities to the point that residents were exposed to living in an environment that was equivalent to a ‘war zone.’” Additionally, the plaintiff alleged the apartment complex violated various anti-nuisance ordinances adopted by the city and county, which again were designed to protect residents against the effects of criminal activity.

The defendants denied any responsibility for the plaintiff’s injuries. They asked the trial court for summary judgment, which is an order dismissing a lawsuit without the need for a trial. The trial judge denied the motion, prompting the defendants to appeal. But the Court of Appeals similarly refused to grant summary judgment.

The appeals court did not address the merits of the plaintiff’s lawsuit. Instead, it simply said he had alleged a plausible claim under the GSGTPA. “[B]ased on the broad definition of criminal gang activity” in the statute, the Court observed, it was up to the jury to decide whether the plaintiff’s allegations were “consistent with the intent” of the General Assembly. Similarly, the plaintiff’s allegations were enough to support his claim that the defendants created a “public nuisance” under local ordinances by exposing their tenants to criminal activity.

Writing separately, Judge Todd Markle noted the Court’s decision, which he supported, was still problematic because it effectively invited the jury “to engage in statutory interpretation and determine whether the landlord or property owner is a proper defendant even if there was no evidence the landlord or property owner participated in the gang activity.” Normally, it is up to judges to interpret and explain the law to the jury. “But this is clearly what the statute says,” Judge Markle explained, and even if that leads to an “absurd result,” it was up to the General Assembly to amend the GSGTPA.

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