In a personal injury lawsuit, the defendant may try to avoid responsibility by accusing the plaintiff of causing or contributing to his or her own injury. Georgia law refers to this as “contributory negligence.” The basic idea, according to a 2000 Georgia Court of Appeals decision, is that if a plaintiff’s own “failure to use ordinary care for his own safety is the sole proximate cause of his injuries,” then he cannot recover damages from a defendant, even if that defendant was negligent.
Miller v. Turner Broadcasting System, Inc.
More recently, the Court of Appeals considered the question of a plaintiff’s contributory negligence in a case in which he was unable to communicate his account of the underlying accident. This tragic case began in 2009, when the plaintiff, a man employed by an electrical subcontractor, was tasked with installing light fixtures in a building. This required re-routing certain wires through an electrical junction box on the building’s roof.
In turn, the plaintiff and his partner had to cut power to the junction box, since they could not work on live wires. The plaintiff inspected the junction box, identified the electrical circuit that controlled the box, and then went into a nearby room to shut off power via a panel that was supposed to correspond to the box. But when the plaintiff’s partner subsequently returned to the junction box, he received a “painful” electrical charge.
The plaintiff then went up the ladder leading to the junction box to check it himself. The partner quickly observed that the plaintiff “was on the electricity.” A group of men then tried to “knock the latter out from under” the plaintiff so his partner could catch him. However, the partner failed to secure the plaintiff, who fell and hit his head.
The plaintiff’s head injury was catastrophic. He is “severely disabled and unable to speak or communicate in any meaningful fashion,” according to court records. The plaintiff sued a number of parties for damages related to his injuries, including the owner of the building and the company that originally installed the junction box. The lawsuit alleges the circuit breaker on the electrical panel was mislabeled. As a result, the plaintiff incorrectly thought he had cut power to the junction box.
Before the trial court, the defendants argued the plaintiff’s own negligence caused his injuries. The judge agreed, citing the plaintiff’s failure to heed his own partner’s warning that the junction box was still active, and granted summary judgment to the defendants. But the Court of Appeals reversed this decision and said there was “sufficient evidence” of the defendants’ negligence to at least avoid summary judgment.
The appeals court cited an expert witness hired by the plaintiff, who testified that the plaintiff’s actions were “perfectly reasonable” under the circumstances, i.e. climbing the ladder to the junction box to “investigate and test the wires.” It was unclear from the available record exactly what the plaintiff did once he reached the junction box–and sadly, he is unable to testify in his present condition. The defendants argued the court should infer from the plaintiff’s “silence” that he was negligent. The Court of Appeals disagreed and returned the case for trial.