Marietta Apartment Owner Not Liable for Child’s Drowning Death

Under Georgia law, a landowner who invites others onto his or her property is liable for any injuries arising from the owner’s “failure to exercise ordinary care in keeping the premises and approaches safe.” This does not mean a property owner must anticipate every possible scenario where someone may be injured. Rather, a court will look at whether there is a “causal connection” between a landowner’s conduct and the injury alleged.

Allan v. Jefferson Lakeside, L.P.

In a recent case, the Georgia Court of Appeals examined the liability of a Marietta apartment complex owner for a tragic automobile accident which occurred on the property. The victim was a three-year-old boy who lived at the complex with his father. The child was riding in a rental car with his uncle, who was driving, and his father.

As the uncle drove out of the apartment complex, he pulled to the side of the property’s private access road to retrieve an item from the glove compartment. In doing so, the uncle accidentally moved his foot from the brake to the accelerator pedal, causing the vehicle to suddenly accelerate. As later described by the Court of Appeals, the “car struck the curb, went over it, the sidewalk, up 14 feet of slope, and down an additional 36 feet into the lake, where the car briefly floated.” Although the father and uncle managed to escape the sinking vehicle, they were unable to free the child, who died from drowning.

The child’s parents subsequently filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the apartment complex, alleging “their son died as a proximate result of [the landowner’s] negligence in failing to install a guardrail between the access road and the lake.” Before the trial court, the parents offered an expert witness who opined the failure to install a guardrail “violated applicable design standards and was the proximate cause of the child’s death.” Despite this expert’s testimony, the trial court granted the apartment complex’s motion for summary judgment.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court. Judge Elizabeth L. Branch, writing for the appeals court, said there was no way the landowner could have reasonably foreseen this type of accident. She cited a number of Georgia cases where “a car has ended up in a place improbably far from where it was supposed to remain, with catastrophic results.” In none of these cases was the landowner deemed liable.

Judge Branch noted only in cases where “when a car may be anticipated to intrude upon a space sufficiently close to a place where invitees are expected to stand or sit,” may a jury hold the property owner liable. This was not such a case. As the judge explained, “it was not foreseeable that any driver on this access road would unintentionally accelerate from a full stop and cross a curb, a sidewalk, 14 feet up a slope, and 36 feet downward from the top of that slope before entering the lake at issue.”

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