Is a Homeowner Liable for Injury to a Mail Carrier Who Falls on the Front Steps?
A cyclist who drives in the road–as opposed to a dedicated bicycle lane–and hits someone another cyclist who is following the rules, clearly is responsible and his HOMEOWNERS INSURANCE protects him. But what about a mailman who walks up the front steps of a homeowner’s house and falls? The Georgia Court of Appeals granted an interlocutory appeal to consider the trial court’s denial of a homeowner’s motion for summary judgment in a mail carrier’s action seeking to hold the them liable for injuries she sustained after she slipped on a pile of leaves and fell down the front steps while delivering a package.
On Sunday, December 1, 2019, a mail carrier was working for the United States Postal Service (“USPS”). She didn’t have a regular route and was called in to deliver packages on a co-worker’s mail route because the USPS was shorthanded. As part of her route, she stopped to deliver a package at the homeowner’s at 6:20 p.m. It was already dark. She’d previously delivered mail to the homeowner‘ mailbox but had never delivered a package to the home’s front porch.
Although it had rained earlier in the day, the rain had stopped around 3:00 p.m. The mail carrier wore leather boots, which she typically wore to work when it was raining. However, she recalled that the ground wasn’t saturated or slippery. She parked in the homeowner’s driveway and walked toward the front porch carrying the package and her scanner while “looking at the ground the best [she] could.”
As she walked toward the porch, she noticed that where she was walking was covered in leaves and “the leaves were crunchy.” The porch light wasn’t on, but a doorbell video of the incident showed that some of the yard and porch were lit with holiday decor. The mail carrier walked partially up the stairs, reached over the remaining steps, and placed the package at the top of the stairs. She then “turned around to walk down[,] … slid off the bottom step, and rolled into” a pile of leaves. The mail carrier said she couldn’t see anything because “[i]t was dark” but that she knew there were leaves on the steps because she “heard them.” She said that the leaves on the porch “could have been” wet because it rained earlier that day. She didn’t know if her left foot twisted or slipped when she fell.
The homeowner’s wife, who was home alone with the couple’s newborn, got a notification on her phone that “there was motion outside” and went to see if the mail carrier was okay. The mail carrier asked her to turn on the porch light so that she could find her scanner, and the homeowner’s wife said the light didn’t work. She instead used her cell phone flashlight to help the mail carrier find her scanner. Eventually, she made it back to her truck and finished her route. But, as a result of the fall, she broke her foot.
At the time of the incident, the homeowner primarily used their garage door to enter and exit their home, but also used the front door several times a week and received deliveries there. His wife said that she’d ordered an item for her newborn but didn’t recall “if [she] was waiting [for that order on] that particular day” and was surprised at the delivery because it was a Sunday. Prior to going outside to check on the mail carrier, the wife didn’t recall the last time she’d gone out on her front porch. She told her husband about the carrier’s fall when he returned home. The homeowner stated that either “[a] couple of days after or the following day,” he looked at where the fall occurred and didn’t see any leaves.
There were several trees in the front yard, and the homeowner testified that he cleaned up the yard every week—typically on Saturdays, by “blow[ing] everything from the outside to the middle of the yard and … mulch[ing] them with the mower” for “aesthetic appeal.” He didn’t recall if he’d cleaned up yard debris on the Saturday before the mail carrier’s fall, and no pictures were taken of the porch or steps at the time of her accident.
The mail carrier filed a lawsuit against the homeowner, asserting that the couple was negligent in failing to properly maintain their porch and in failing to warn invitees of its dangerous condition. The homeowner filed a motion for summary judgment, and after a hearing, the trial court entered an order denying the homeowner’ motion. He then filed an interlocutory appeal and argued that the trial court erred in denying their motion because there was no genuine issue of material fact as to whether they had knowledge of the allegedly hazardous condition and that the mail carrier’s knowledge was equal or superior to their knowledge.
What is Georgia Premises Liability Law?
Judge Ben Land of the Court of Appeals explained in his opinion that Georgia premises liability law imposes liability on a property owner for “injuries [to invitees] caused by [the owner’s] failure to exercise ordinary care in keeping the premises and approaches safe,” quoting O.C.G.A. § 51-3-1. And while the owner of the premises must exercise ordinary care, he’s not an insurer of an invitee’s safety, nor does the mere fact that an accident occurred create a presumption of negligence.
To prevail in a slip and fall case, the plaintiff must show:
- that the defendant had actual or constructive knowledge of the hazard; and
- that the plaintiff lacked knowledge of the hazard, despite the exercise of ordinary care, due to actions or conditions within the defendant’s control.
“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,” the judge wrote, quoting a 2005 decision. More specifically, the Court of Appeals has held that in cases concerning falls on “naturally occurring substances,” the rule is:
[W]here the accumulation of [that substance] on a premises is naturally occurring and not attributable to any affirmative action on the proprietor’s part, the proprietor has no affirmative duty to discover and remove it in the absence of evidence that it had become an obvious hazard by means other than natural accumulation.
As a result, liability comes only from an owner’s failure to exercise ordinary care to take remedial action after notice to him of the defective condition coupled with a failure to take remedial action within a reasonable time.
Here, there wasn’t any evidence that any affirmative action by the homeowner caused the leaves to collect on the steps, and there was no evidence that the homeowner had actual knowledge of this condition. The mail carrier argued that the homeowner had actual and/or constructive knowledge of the allegedly hazardous condition of the porch because he failed to clear the leaves from the area. But Judge Land opined that the homeowner’s general knowledge that leaves fall on his property and weekly cleaning of his yard doesn’t equate to knowledge of the specific accumulation of leaves that the mail carrier alleged caused her fall. Meanwhile, the carrier acknowledged that she “heard” the leaves under her feet as she walked to the front porch, and thus she “had reason to believe that this debris, which fell naturally from trees overhead, would land on all the steps, including the one where [she] fell.” Under these circumstances, the mail carrier’s knowledge was at least equal to the homeowner’, the judge said, and the homeowner was entitled to summary judgment.
Did the Homeowner Breach His Duty?
Judge Land said that even if the homeowner had a duty to discover and remove the leaves, there was no evidence that he breached his duty because there was no evidence showing that the leaves remained on the front steps “for a sufficient amount of time that they should have been discovered and removed in a reasonable inspection of the premises.”
The homeowner cleaned his property of fallen leaves on a weekly basis, and the carrier provided no evidence that this was unreasonable. The homeowner’s wife was home alone with the couple’s newborn and couldn’t say when she’d last used the front porch. It was undisputed that it rained that day, and there was no evidence showing how long the leaves were there on the steps. Thus, there was no evidence demonstrating that the leaves were on the front steps long enough that a reasonable inspection would have discovered them, and the homeowner couldn’t be liable on this ground.
Also, the mail carrier provided no evidence of a contractual or statutory duty on the part of the homeowner, and she didn’t allege that the steps themselves were a dangerous condition she was unable to discover due to poor lighting. Because there was no genuine issue of material fact as to whether the homeowner had actual or constructive knowledge of the leaves on their front porch, the alleged failure to provide adequate lighting created no grounds for liability. Therefore, the trial court erred in denying summary judgment to the homeowner, and the judgment was reversed. Suddarth v. Lounsbrough, 369 Ga. App. 158, 2023 Ga. App. LEXIS 419, 2023 WL 5812546 (Ga. App. September 8, 2023).
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