What is Summary Judgment?
The defendant in this case, an apartment management company, appealed the denial of its motion for summary judgment. Summary judgment is granted for the moving party when there is no genuine issue as to any material fact in the case, and based on this the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Motions for summary judgment underscore the importance of having all of the necessary elements of the case that one intends to make in hand when one goes to trial.
This case illustrates a failure to do just this. One can easily infer from this fairly short decision that the Plaintiff was not properly advised by her counsel regarding how to answer a fundamental question posed by the defendant’s counsel. As a result, the plaintiff lost.
The case was before the Court of Appeals of Georgia (decided January 9, 2020). “Slip and fall” cases cover a wide range of scenarios, with a common aspect: someone fell, and the fall was purportedly due to the negligence of another party, who had a duty to prevent the conditions that caused the fall. More generally, this describes the basic elements of a tort: someone had a duty, they failed to perform that duty, there was a causal link between this failure and an injury.
Particular Situations Create Particular Duties
Here, the plaintiff lived at the defendant’s apartment complex — this establishes that the defendant had a duty to maintain safe conditions there. The plaintiff and her daughter went to a designated car cleaning area at the apartment complex. This fact brings up the general point that particular places and situations give additional context to, and can create, duties or responsibilities. Here, the defendant had the means to know that a car-washing area could get slippery, and therefore that he had an additional responsibility in such a place to maintain safe conditions.
As the plaintiff proceeded from a paved parking lot to the vacuum at the car washing area — an area with rocks embedded in the ground — and reached for the vacuum, she fell backwards and was injured. These facts establish that the plaintiff was injured, but do they show that the defendant’s negligence in some way caused that injury? This question is the crux of this case.
What Does a Plaintiff Need to Know In a Slip Case?
When questioned by the defense, the plaintiff was asked if she knew what had caused her to fall. She said that she didn’t. The question was repeated, and she again said that she didn’t know what had caused her to slip. The defense went further, and asked her to confirm that she didn’t know what had caused her to slip. Again, the plaintiff admitted this.
No doubt seeing that this admission would be fatal to her case, the plaintiff’s attorney later attempted to correct things by asking the plaintiff her opinion as to why she had slipped. While the plaintiff did speculate that it was because the rocks were slippery, she also stated that she hadn’t noted any water or other hazardous condition on the ground. Reading this, one can almost sense the plaintiff’s attorney trying to will the plaintiff to phrase her answer in a way that will show causation — and failing.
Since the plaintiff failed to provide any evidence of the existence of a hazardous condition, the plaintiff has failed to she has failed to show causation for her fall. That is: the presence of slippery conditions is necessary to show cause. The Court of Appeals quotes Taylor v. Thunderbird Lanes (324 Ga. App. 167): “it is well established that proof of a fall, without more, does not create liability on the part of the proprietor or landowner, because it is common knowledge that people fall on the best of sidewalks and floors.” That is: nothing the plaintiff has evidenced here precludes the plaintiff having fallen over because she lost her balance, or tripped on her shoelace.
Slipping up on Speculative Causality
The trial court inferred from the facts given that the rocks were slippery, and thus denied the defendant’s motion for summary judgment. The Court of Appeals, in contrast, made clear that speculation that the rocks were slippery is not enough, providing a rule from Glynn-Brunswick Mem. Hosp. Auth. v. Benton, 303 Ga. App. 305: “[g]uesses or speculation which raise merely a conjecture or possibility of a hazardous condition are not sufficient to create even an inference of fact for consideration on summary judgment. Rather, the plaintiff must produce evidence of what foreign substance, condition, or hazard caused her to slip and fall.” (Emphasis added.)
Although one imagines plaintiff’s counsel here trying to help the plaintiff, it might also be the case that the plaintiff honestly didn’t notice any slipperiness on the rocks, and that her attorney either didn’t grasp the essential elements of this case, or hoped that the Appeals Court would make the same inference that the plaintiff did: the rocks around a car-washing area might be slippery. However, as the Court decided, such inferences are not what prove cases.