The guiding principle of negligence liability is that one should be accountable for injuries occasioned by a failure to act with reasonable care. Since reasonableness is the guiding principle for negligence liability, it follows that one should not be held liable when the events leading to the injury, even if foreseeable in theory, are not likely to occur such that there is no reasonable expectation that one should prepare for them. This underlying principle was at the heart of a recent decision from the Georgia Court of Appeals, Allan v. Jefferson Lakeside L.P., which addressed whether the owner of an apartment complex could be liable for failing to install guardrails around an artificial lake on the property.
The tragic events at issue in this case occurred in May 1, 2010 at an apartment complex owned by the defendant. The plaintiffs had moved into the complex a few months earlier, and on this day the uncle of the plaintiffs’ son came to pick up the child and the child’s father, who was the brother of the driver. This was not the uncle’s first visit to the complex. While driving down the access road with his brother and the child, who was strapped in the backseat, he stopped on the side of the access road in order to retrieve cigarettes from the glove compartment. When his brother opened the glove compartment, the driver saw his navigation system and asked his brother to hand it to him. While he was mounting the navigation system on the dashboard, the driver unintentionally released his foot from the brake and pressed the accelerator, which caused the car to jump the curb and go down a slope that led to an artificial lake that was about only 14 feet from the curb. The car submerged, and although the driver and his brother were able to escape, the child drowned.
The parents of the decedent child brought a wrongful death and negligence lawsuit against the owner of the apartment complex. The plaintiffs argued that their son’s death was the proximate cause of the defendant’s failure to install a guardrail between the access road and the lake. The defendant moved for summary judgment, and the trial court granted the motion. The plaintiff then brought this appeal.
As we noted above, the core of negligence liability is whether a party should be liable for failing to act with reasonable care. Accordingly, the question becomes whether the apartment complex’s failure to install a guardrail was unreasonable. In order for the defendant’s failure to install a guardrail to be considered unreasonable, however, the injury must have been of the variety that would be reasonably foreseeable. See, e.g., Feldman v. Whipkey’s Drug Shop, 121 Ga. App. 580, 581 (1970) (“One is bound to anticipate and provide against what usually happens and what is likely to happen; but it would impose too heavy a responsibility to hold him bound . . . to guard against what is unusual and unlikely to happen, or what is only remotely and slightly probable.” (citations omitted)). An act is not considered foreseeable “if it is unusual . . . unlikely to happen . . . rare . . . in experience, or if other and contingent experiences preponderate largely in causing the [injury].” Standard Oil Co. v. Harris, 120 Ga. App. 768, 774 (5) (1969) (citations and emphasis omitted).
The Court of Appeals held that the trial court did not err in granting summary judgment and affirmed. In this case, the Court of Appeals found the child’s drowning was the result of an improbable and unlikely event, not the defendant’s failure to build the guardrail. The court highlighted the sequence of events leading to the child’s drowning, which included the uncle inattentively pressing the accelerator and the car jumping the curb unexpectedly and subsequently falling down the slope. The plaintiffs argued that since the lake was near the access road, the defendants should have reasonably anticipated that an erratic driver might come into contact with it. However, the court focused on the sort of erratic driving at issue here, in particular the uncle’s conduct, which could be deemed criminally liable if it occurred on a public road, and it found that such carelessness could not have reasonably been anticipated and safeguarded against.
Although we all understand negligence as a concept, proving negligence in a court is often more difficult a task than one would anticipate. Indeed, the facts of every case are unique, and given the fact-intensive nature of the negligence inquiry, one needs to be prepared to address every detail and how each fits within the known legal theories. The guidance of experienced counsel can be useful for those who need to navigate the tricky maze of facts, procedure, and law that every case presents. The Atlanta wrongful death attorneys at the Simon Law Firm are well versed in trial practice, and they are ready to offer you the benefits of their skills. If you’ve recently been injured in a possible case of negligence and are curious about the strength of your possible claim, feel free to contact us for a free case consultation. We look forward to helping you assess and understand your prospective case.