Assumption of risk is among the most commonly invoked defenses in negligence cases. Given that the defense has existed as long as the common law and is so frequently raised by defendants in negligence cases, courts have been forced to address the contours of the defense’s applicability for hundreds of years. In a recent decision, Watson v. Reg’l First Care, Inc., the Georgia Court of Appeals added another chapter to its assumption of risk jurisprudence by addressing whether a patient assumed the risk of injury when he chose to sit on an examination table at a local medical clinic.
The plaintiff in Watson was a patient at the defendant medical clinic, where he was receiving treatment for bronchitis. Following a visit to the clinic on April 16, the plaintiff had a coughing episode that caused him to black out and hit his head on a nightstand in his home. On May 2, the plaintiff returned to the medical clinic for further bronchitis treatment. Following his arrival at the clinic, the plaintiff was taken to an examination room by a medical assistant. The medical assistant instructed the plaintiff to sit on an examination table, measured his blood pressure, and left to find a physician. While he was having his blood pressure measured, the plaintiff told the medical assistant that he had fainted as a result of coughing spells on two prior occasions. While waiting for the doctor to arrive, the plaintiff had another coughing fit that caused him to black out and fall to the floor.
The plaintiff sustained injuries as a result of the fall and brought suit against the clinic and the medical assistant, arguing that the assistant’s negligence in failing to have him move to another location after learning of his propensity for fainting caused his fall. The defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing that the assumption of risk defense applied and therefore precluded the plaintiff from recovering damages for negligence. The trial court agreed and granted the motion for summary judgment. Thereafter, the plaintiff brought the current appeal.
To the plaintiff’s likely chagrin, the Georgia Court of Appeals, in a unanimous decision, sided with the trial court’s reasoning. Under Georgia law, the assumption of risk defense applies when a defendant proves that “the plaintiff (1) had actual knowledge of the danger; (2) understood and appreciated the risks associated with [the] danger; and (3) voluntarily exposed himself to those risks.” Findley v. Griffin, 292 Ga. App. 807, 809 (2) (2008). Generally, the assumption of risk defense’s applicability turns on questions of fact that should be resolved by a jury. Turner v. Sumter Self Storage Co., 215 Ga. App. 92, 94 (3) (1994). However, this inquiry may be resolved at the summary judgment phase when the “defense is conclusively established by plain, palpable and undisputed evidence” that leave no issue of fact for a jury to determine. Id.
In this case, it was undisputed that the plaintiff understood that he was prone to fainting during coughing episodes and that sitting on the examination table placed him at risk of a fall. However, the plaintiff argued that summary judgement was still unwarranted, since he did not assume the risk, but instead his actions were, at most, contributorily negligent. Georgia law does distinguish between acts of contributory negligence and assumption of risk. See, e.g., Little Rapids Corp. v. McCamy, 218 Ga. App. 111, 113 (1) (1995). The key feature that distinguishes contributory negligence from assumption of risk is whether the plaintiff had a subjective awareness of the risk posed and consented to it. Findley, 292 Ga. App. at 809. Although the line between the two concepts can be fuzzy, the Court of Appeals found that there was sufficient evidence in the record for a finding of subjective awareness in this case. Indeed, the plaintiff had experienced similar coughing and fainting episodes before and openly acknowledged that he understood the risks posed when he experienced these coughing fits. Accordingly, the court concluded that there was no issue of fact related to the application of the assumption of risk defense and therefore affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment.
Although many people like to believe that a jury of their peers will ultimately hear all legal claims, the vast majority of claims never reach trial. Indeed, many claims, including those at issue in this case, are resolved in the protracted motion practice that occurs prior to any trial, and any litigant must be prepared to navigate these procedural hurdles. The assistance of experienced counsel can be of benefit to those unfamiliar with the legal system, and those with a viable negligence claim should consider finding competent representation prior to undertaking legal action to seek compensation for their injuries. The Atlanta premises liability attorneys at the Simon Law Firm have considerable experience representing injured plaintiffs in state and federal courts, and we are prepared to assist you with a possible claim. If you’ve recently been injured on another’s premises and are curious about your legal options, feel free to contact us for a free case evaluation.