What is the liability of a store owner for a potential tort committed by members of the public? The Georgia Court of Appeals recently addressed this question. The case involved a woman who claimed she was injured as the result of a collision with an unsupervised child.
Ingles Markets, Inc. v. Carroll
According to the plaintiff, she visited a grocery store in Villa Roca, Georgia, one afternoon in February 2012. As she walked down a store aisle, the plaintiff said a boy—about 11- or 12-years old—ran down the aisle, knocked into her, and caused her to fall. The plaintiff then filed a personal injury lawsuit against the child’s parents and the store.
The child’s parents defaulted in the litigation. The store argued it was not liable for the plaintiff’s injuries. The store moved for summary judgment, which the trial court denied.
But in a decision issued on October 24, the Georgia Court of Appeals reversed. A three-judge panel held there was no evidence the store had “actual or constructive knowledge” of the hazard created by the child running in the aisle. Indeed, the panel said the undisputed evidence proved otherwise.
In any premises liability case, the plaintiff must show the property owner was aware of the hazard. In a typical slip-and-fall case, for example, there must be evidence the store’s management had “superior knowledge of a condition” that exposes a customer to “unreasonable risk of harm.” Even if the store lacks actual knowledge of a hazard, it may still be liable if the dangerous condition lasted long enough that it should been discovered. (This is what is known as “constructive knowledge.”)
In the case of a hazard created by a third party—like a running child—rather than a spill, the Court of Appeals said the store only has a duty to act when “the danger is apparent, or the circumstances are such as would put an ordinarily prudent man on notice of the probability of danger.” But a store does not generally have a duty to provide attendants or security guards to protect customers from unruly children.
In this case, the store presented evidence that its managers regularly inspect the property to ensure there are no hazards that pose a danger to customers. The plaintiff argued these inspection procedures were inadequate, as approximately 30 minutes elapsed between the child running into her and the manager’s last inspection. The Court of Appeals said this was insufficient to prove the store had “constructive knowledge” of the hazard posed by the child. Based on her own testimony, the child was likely running for just a few seconds before the accident. The only way the store could have knowledge would be to maintain a “constant patrol” of the aisles—exactly the sort of duty the Court of Appeals said it would not impose on any property owner.