Georgia Court Revives Pastor’s “Slip-and-Fall” Lawsuit Against Church

Under Georgia law, the owner of a premises is liable for any injuries arising from a failure to “exercise ordinary care” in keeping said premises safe. A recent decision from the Georgia Court of Appeals illustrates how this duty is applied in “slip-and-fall” cases where there is an alleged hazard the owner failed to warn invited persons about.

Henderson v. St. Paul Baptist Church

The plaintiffs in this case were two visiting pastors, a husband and wife, invited to speak at a church in Clinch County. The church did not have a designated parking lot, so the local pastor directed the plaintiffs to park behind his own car on the left side of the building. The plaintiffs parked their car as directed, behind their host’s car and near some some shrubbery. One of the plaintiffs, the wife, later exited the car and walked towards the church’s front entrance. She walked through the ground near the shrubbery, which was covered in pine straw. Assuming it was safe, she stepped over the pine straw, which was in fact covering a hole. She fell into the hole and broke her leg.

The plaintiffs sued the church for premises liability. The church’s pastor admitted he was aware of the hole, which had been dug when the shrubbery had been planted about a month before the plaintiff’s accident. The pastor also acknowledged this hole was not visible or marked in any way. He conceded there was no way the plaintiffs could have known the hole was there.

Nevertheless, the church moved for summary judgment, arguing the plaintiff was responsible for the accident. The trial court agreed. The court accepted evidence the plaintiff took a “shortcut” through the shrubbery to get to the church’s entrance rather than using the designated path.

The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court on the summary judgment question. The appeals court said there were still disputed questions of fact to be resolved at trial. Specifically, the plaintiff presented evidence “that at the time of her fall the entire area between her car and the bushes was covered with pine straw, leaving her with no choice of whether to walk on the pine straw to get to the church entrance from the parking spot.” The appeals court also pointed to the plaintiff’s testimony that it was the defendant’s pastor who invited them to park next to the shrubs, contradicting the notion the plaintiff negligently chose to deviate from the designated path.

As is always the case with summary judgment, the Court of Appeals did not rule for the plaintiff on the merits. The court is required to reconsider the trial court’s decision on summary judgment in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Here, the Court of Appeals simply found a factual dispute remained, which requires a trial before a jury. The jury could still ultimately find it was the plaintiff’s negligence, rather than the defendant’s failure to warn, that was responsible for her injuries.

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