The owner of an establishment is not liable for a claimant’s injury simply by virtue of the injury occurring on the owner’s premises. The fact that someone falls on the premises does not automatically entitle them to a recovery against the owner. The mere ownership of land or buildings does not render one liable for the injuries sustained by the persons who have entered thereon or therein. Simply stated, falling and injuring one’s self proves nothing.
Such happenings are commonplace wherever humans go. To presume that because a customer falls on the premises of a proprietor, the proprietor has somehow been negligent would make the proprietor an insurer of his customer’s safety, which Georgia law does not permit. Therefore, simply because someone claims to have suffered an injury on the owner’s premises, he/she is not entitled to a recovery. Instead, the injured person must show that the owner breached a duty owed him as a patron in the establishment.
With regard to that duty, the claimant must prove that the owner was negligent, and that the owner’s negligence caused the claimant’s injury. The most common premises liability claim is a slip and fall case where the claimant slips on a foreign substance on the floor of a business premises. A foreign substance is anything on the ground that is not ordinarily present, such as a puddle of liquid, a grape, a piece of paper or any other food, beverage or item.
The Georgia Supreme Court has held that in order to state a cause of action, a slip and fall claimant must show (1) that the owner had actual or constructive knowledge of the foreign substance, and (2) that the claimant was without knowledge of the substance or for some reason attributable to the owner was prevented from discovering it. The true basis for an owner’s liability is his superior knowledge of the existence of a condition that could subject his invitees to an unreasonable risk of injury. To establish actual knowledge, a claimant must do more than merely show that a defendant had a general knowledge that a hazardous condition might exist; it must be specific to the hazard which caused the plaintiff’s injury. This article focuses on the owner’s constructive knowledge, rather than actual knowledge.
To establish a premises owner’s constructive knowledge of a hazard, a claimant has two options. The claimant can establish the owner’s constructive knowledge by presenting (1) evidence that employees were in the immediate vicinity and easily could have noticed and removed the hazard, or (2) evidence that the substance had been on the floor for such a time that it would have been discovered had the proprietor exercised reasonable care in inspecting the premises. With regard to employees in the vicinity of the foreign substance, the claimant has to show that the substance was visible and capable of being discerned by the employee. With regard to liability for failure to properly inspect the premises, the central issue is the claimant’s proof of the actual amount of time the substance had been on the floor. Therefore, recovery under the second approach requires proof that reasonable inspections procedures were not followed and the dangerous condition was allowed to exist for a significant amount of time.
It is the owner’s burden of proving the existence of reasonable care in inspecting the premises. Generally speaking, courts have found that reasonable inspection procedures can be established by a manager’s affidavit testifying that the owner had a policy of inspecting its store every thirty minutes and that the area was inspected thirty minutes prior to the claimant’s fall, and such evidence shifts the burden to the claimant to show that the substance was on the floor for a length of time sufficient for knowledge to be imputed to the owner. If the claimant in such a case cannot show the amount of time the substance was present, the owner is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. However, if there is conflicting evidence as to whether the inspection procedures were followed on the day of the accident, or there is no testimony as to the exact procedures followed on the day of the accident, then a jury must decide the reasonableness of the owner’s inspection procedures.
In transient-hazard cases (e.g., just-fallen grapes, spilt liquids, etc.), courts have created a baseline of imputing constructive knowledge to premises owners: where a substance [spilled water, for example] falls just before a customer slips on it, as a matter of law no duty was violated because it would be silly to expect store personnel to follow each customer around and leap in front of each fallen grape [or spilt liquid]. Under Georgia law, it is well settled that a proprietor is under no duty to patrol the premises continuously in the absence of facts showing that the premises are unusually dangerous. If a substance is on the floor for a short enough period of time before a patron’s fall, the owner can be entitled to judgment as a matter of law because its employees could not have had enough time to remove or correct the hazard.
Summary judgment has been granted to the owner where only eight minutes transpired between the fall and an inspection that showed no liquid on the floor. Summary judgment was also granted in a case where the plaintiff slipped and fell only five to ten minutes after the manager inspected the area of the fall. Going even further, a Georgia Court held that a grocery store had no constructive knowledge of water spilt on the floor, where, approximately twenty minutes prior to slip and fall, a store employee inspected the area and there was no spill or other hazard present.
For a specific example, the Georgia Court of Appeals addressed the legal topics this article covers in All American Quality Foods, Inc. v. Smith, 340 Ga.App. 393 (2017). In Smith, the video evidence showed that on the day of Smith’s fall, store employees had conducted a regular inspection of the premises during the period from 3:53 to 4:05 p.m. 340 Ga.App. 393, 394. Subsequently, at 4:28 p.m., two children were walking in the aisle where Smith fell. The children had drink cans and bumped into each other, and one of the children appears to glance at the floor at about 4:28:06 p.m.
A few minutes later Smith entered the aisle and fell at 4:35:06 p.m. Id. The court noted that the video evidence showed that the “spill occurred somewhere between 4:28 to 4:29 p.m. when the children with the open container were in the areas of her fall, and Smith fell six to seven minutes later at approximately 4:35 p.m.” Id. at 395 (emphasis added). The court held that the “limited period of time that the substance was on the floor [was] insufficient as a matter of law to hold that Food Depot should have discovered and removed the liquid prior to Smith’s fall.” Id. at 395-96. Therefore, Smith failed to establish that Food Depot had constructive knowledge of the hazard. Id. at 396, citing Hagan v. Goody’s family Clothing, Inc., 227 Ga.App. 585 (1997) (summary judgment appropriate where only evidence showed that hazard had arisen less than two minutes before plaintiff’s fall).
Accordingly, Georgia premises owners can defeat a claimant’s allegation of constructive knowledge of a hazard and shield themselves from liability by showing that a reasonable inspection procedure was in place and executed in the area within a reasonable amount of time prior to a claimant’s fall.