Tripping hazards come in all shapes and sizes including tree roots, whether they are in the dirt or growing through a sidewalk. When they are disrupting sidewalks, its a pretty clear violation if the City has not done anything to repair or visibly paint the roots but tree roots in the dirt are a different challenge.
In a recent opinion, a trial court addressed whether the judge was correct in refusing to throw the case out before reaching a jury (summary judgment). The injury lady filed the Georgia premises liability lawsuit alleging that she broke two bones in her leg after tripping on an exposed root in a dirt area of the restaurant’s parking lot.
In all premises liability suits, the issue is simply this: IF YOU FALL BECAUSE OF SOMETHING ON A PROPERTY, WHETHER LIQUID OR SOLID, IF YOU KNEW AS MUCH AS THE PROPERTY OWNER DID ABOUT IT BEING THERE, YOUR LAWSUIT WILL GET TOSSED OUT. YOU HAVE TO PROVE THEY HAD AT LEAST IMPLIED KNOWLEDGE OF THE DANGER AND YOU DID NOT
The owner moved for summary judgment (to have it thrown out), arguing that the plaintiff failed to prove that the defendant had superior knowledge of the danger. After a trial court denied his motion, he appealed, arguing that summary judgment was appropriate; contending that he did not have actual knowledge of the danger, the plaintiff knew about the hazard, and the hazard was a naturally-occurring object.
Plaintiffs can succeed under Georgia premises liability law if they can establish that the defendant had actual or constructive knowledge of the hazard. In this case, the defendant argued that he should succeed based on the assumption that a plaintiff who previously traversed (WALKED OVER) a static defect has knowledge of the defect. However, the court reasoned that the rule only applied if the plaintiff “successfully negotiated” the dangerous condition on a prior occasion. Here, evidence suggests that the root became dangerous at some point during the four days before her fall. This is evident because the owner had a landscaping company at the property four days earlier, and they did not report any broken or protruding roots. Therefore, there is no evidence that the plaintiff traversed the dangerous condition on a prior occasion.
Next, the owner argued that he did not have knowledge of the hazard. However, the law provides that a plaintiff may establish constructive knowledge by demonstrating that an employee saw the defect and had an opportunity to correct the danger, or the hazard existed for a length of time that the owner should have discovered it if he engaged in reasonable care of his property. Here, the court found that a jury could find that the defendant failed to have a reasonable procedure to inspect the area for dangers. Questions regarding whether the owner had reasonable inspection procedures is one that should go to a jury.
Finally, the owner contends that he does not have a duty to discover and remove naturally-occurring objects, such as the protruding root. However, the court noted that no bright-line rule regarding naturally-occurring objects exists. Instead, a naturally-occurring dangerous object does not negate the owner’s duty to reasonably inspect their property.
Ultimately, these cases primarily focus on whether the defendant had superior knowledge of the dangerous condition and took steps to remedy the dangerous condition. Here, there are genuine issues of material fact, and the court affirmed the denial of the defendant’s motion for summary judgment.
The reality is this case will likely not do well in front of a jury but, at least they got through summary judgment and may have a shot at settling now.
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