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Knowledge Is Power: Proceed With Caution (In Premises Liability Cases)

March 02, 2014 BY Christina Jay

   It is well known that “[w]here an owner or occupier of land, by express or implied invitation, induces or leads others to come upon his premises for any lawful purpose, he is liable in damages to such persons for injuries caused by his failure to exercise ordinary care in keeping the premises and approaches safe.”  O.C.G.A. § 51-3-1.  In premises liability cases, summary judgment generally is not appropriate, because there are typically disputes about what the evidence shows regarding the parties’ respective negligence.  See Robinson v. Kroger Co., 268 Ga. 735, 749 (1997). 

However, ever since the landmark decision in Robinson v. Kroger Co. was published, courts have generally held that in order to survive a motion for summary judgment, “a plaintiff must come forward with evidence that, viewed in the most favorable light, would enable a rational trier of fact to find that the defendant had actual or constructive knowledge of the hazard. At that point, the burden of production shifts to the defendant to produce evidence that the plaintiff's injury was caused by his or her own voluntary negligence (intentional disregard of a known risk) or causal negligence (failure to exercise ordinary care for one's personal safety). If the defendant succeeds in doing so, the burden of production shifts back to the plaintiff to come forward with evidence that creates a genuine dispute of fact on the question of voluntary or causal negligence by the plaintiff or tends to show that any such negligence resulted from the defendant's own actions or conditions under the defendant's control.”  American Multi–Cinema, Inc. v. Brown, 285 Ga. 442, 444–445 (2009).

            Therefore, if a plaintiff has knowledge of a hazard that is equal to or superior to the defendant’s knowledge, that plaintiff is precluded from recovering.  The legal reasoning behind this approach is that the premises owner’s or occupier’s liability is based upon the premises owner’s superior knowledge of the defect.  If the claimant knows of the hazardous condition, the owner has no duty to warn the claimant and is not liable for an injury because the claimant, who has as much knowledge as the owner does, assumes the risks and dangers incident to the known condition by voluntarily acting in view of his or her knowledge.  A proprietor may be liable only if it had superior knowledge of a condition that exposed an invitee to an unreasonable risk of harm. Courter v. Pilot Travel Ctrs., LLC, 317 Ga. App. 229, 229 (2012).  Because a plaintiff cannot recover in a premises liability suit unless the defendant had superior knowledge of the hazard, the defendant is entitled to summary judgment if there is no evidence that it had superior knowledge or the undisputed evidence demonstrates that the plaintiff's knowledge of the hazard was equal to or greater than that of the defendant. Baldwin Co. Hosp. Auth. v. Martinez, 204 Ga. App. 840, 842 (1992). 

In a newsworthy decision, Landings Ass’n, Inc. v. Williams, 291 Ga. 397 (2012),  the Georgia Supreme Court held that because the victim of an alligator attack had equal knowledge of the alligators within the community, summary judgment was appropriate and the plaintiffs could not recover on their premises liability claim.  In this action, the estate and heirs of Gwyneth Williams sought to recover damages from the owner of a lagoon where Williams was allegedly killed by a large alligator. 

The Court of Appeals originally held that there was a question of fact as to whether the owners failed to take reasonable steps to protect Williams from being attacked and killed by an alligator on their premises. This incident was the first known alligator attack in the community.  The Supreme Court granted certiorari and found that the record showed that Williams had equal knowledge of the threat of the alligators within the community and, therefore, that the owners were entitled to judgment as a matter of law on the premises liability claim.

The facts showed that at the time of the alligator attack, Williams was house-sitting for her daughter and son-in-law at the Landings, a planned residential development located off of the Georgia coast. Before the Landings was developed, the land within and surrounding its boundaries was largely marsh, where indigenous alligators lived and thrived.  Prior to the attack, Williams was aware that the property was inhabited by alligators. Testimony showed that Williams was aware that wild alligators were present around the Landings and in the lagoons in the Landings.  Williams’ son and son-in-law testified that on separate occasions they had stopped on the property so that Williams could look at an alligator.  Williams had mentioned that she did not like alligators and did not want to go near them. Therefore, the Court concluded that Williams “had knowledge equal to the Landings entities about the presence of alligators in the community.”  Id. at 399.  In addition, the record showed that Williams knew that the alligators were dangerous and that Williams chose to go for a walk at night near a lagoon in a community in which she knew that wild alligators were present.

The Court further explained that Williams “either knowingly assumed the risks of walking in areas inhabited by wild alligators or failed to exercise ordinary care by doing so.”  Id.  The Court pointed to an analogous legal theory that goes along with equal knowledge, assumption of the risk.  In a bold statement, the Court concluded that “[a] reasonable adult who is not disabled understands that small alligators have large parents and are capable of moving from one lagoon to another, and such an adult, therefore, assumes the risk of an alligator attack when, knowing that wild alligators are present in a community, walks near a lagoon in that community after dark.”  Id. at 400.  Essentially, the Court held that a plaintiff is deemed to have equal knowledge of a potential hazard if the plaintiff could have been aware of it through the exercise of ordinary, reasonable care. Plaintiffs must use all of their senses to locate and avoid hazards, including common sense.   

Based on the testimony in this case, it is clear that Williams had knowledge of the alligators in the area. There is even evidence that Williams intentionally avoided these alligators because she did not like them. While one can only emphasize with her family, Williams’ knowledge of the alligators precluded her heirs and estate from recovering.  “Recovery is allowed only when the proprietor had knowledge of the hazard and the invitee did not.” Ward v. Autry Petroleum Co., 281 Ga. App. 877 (2006). 

Therefore, a plaintiff’s knowledge of a hazardous condition is powerful evidence for a defendant owner or occupier of land.  Even if the defendant owner or occupier has knowledge of the hazard, evidence of plaintiff’s equal knowledge of the hazard can defeat his or her claim for liability.

The Journal is a publication for the clients of Drew Eckl & Farnham, LLP. It is written in a general format and is not intended to be legal advice to any specific circumstance. Legal Opinions may vary when based upon subtle factual differences. All rights reserved. 

Editorial Board:

H. Michael Bagley