A business owner has a duty under Georgia law to exercise “ordinary care” in maintaining a safe premises for customers. This does not mean a business owner is liable for any and all safety hazards on the premises. Rather, it means an owner who has “superior knowledge” of a hazard and fails to act may be held responsible if that hazard injures a customer.
In cases where the owner and customer have equal knowledge of a hazard—or are presumed by law to have equal knowledge—the owner is not liable. This question often comes up in “slip-and-fall” cases when owners and customers disagree as to whether the owner had superior or equal knowledge. A recent decision by a federal appeals court illustrates how judges deal with these questions.
Womack-Sang v. Publix Super Markets, Inc.
This case began with a 2007 incident. A customer entered a supermarket in Suwanee, Georgia, one afternoon. It had been raining most of the day and more than two inches of water had fallen in the area. The customer entered the store through a carpeted vestibule leading to a tiled floor. When she reached the tile, she slipped and fell.
The customer believed she had slipped on a puddle of water on the tile. She reported her fall to a store manager. The manager and at least two other employees inspected the area of the fall and found there was no standing water.
The customer subsequently filed a personal injury lawsuit against the store. The case was heard in a federal court applying Georgia law. The trial judge granted the supermarket’s motion for summary judgment. The customer appealed to the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over federal courts in Georgia.
The 11th Circuit agreed with the trial judge’s decision. In an unsigned opinion, a three-judge panel said that under Georgia law, the fact it had been raining absolved the store of any premises liability. In a 2006 decision, the Georgia Court of Appeals concluded, “Store proprietors are not liable to patrons who slip and fall on floors made wet by rain conditions unless there has been an unusual accumulation of water and the proprietor has failed to follow reasonable inspection and cleaning procedures.” This “rainy day” defense applies even if it is not raining at the time of an accident. If it has been raining at any point during the day, there is a presumption that customers have an “equal knowledge” of potentially hazardous conditions.
In this case, the 11th Circuit said the customer had not overcome this presumption. To defeat a “rainy day” defense, a plaintiff must present evidence of an “unusual accumulation of water.” Unfortunately, the customer here had no such evidence. The store employees testified the floor in question “was clean and dry” when they inspected it after the customer reported her fall. Without any evidence to the contrary, there was no disputed factual issue to present to a jury. The appeals court therefore found the trial judge correctly granted summary judgment to the store.