Is a loft bed an “open and obvious condition”?

Posted in Georgia Court of Appeals on September 9, 2020

August 17, 2020

In the Court of Appeals of Georgia

A20A1036. VALDOSTA STATE UNIVERSITY, et al. v. DAVIS.

College is a time when many kids first encounter the responsibilities of adulthood. As this case shows, this is not always as easy as falling out of a bed.

I’ll take the top bunk

Davis, the Defendant, was a college freshman at Valdosta State University (the Defendant) in 2016. Upon moving into her dorm, she found “two lofted beds,” one of them higher than the other. Since her new roommate had already taken the lower bed, she took the upper. The facts include Davis’ request for a bed at the same, lower height, but this request was denied by Valdosta State. Since there was no ladder, the Defendant climbed atop her desk to get to the upper bed. This can-do, but unorthodox approach was eventually eliminated as the roommates came up with a “really cute” furniture arrangement that, seemingly, did not involve climbing on furniture, and also ended Davis’ formal attempts to get a lower level bed from the University.

This would not be a personal injury case involving college students if there weren’t some alcohol involved.

After having a few beers at a fraternity pre-party, Davis returned to her dorm room, feeling tipsy, and went to bed. Her next memory was falling out of her lofted bed, blacking out, and waking up to her roommate asking if she was alright. The Plaintiff suffered serious injuries, requiring surgery and an intensive care unit stay. Further, she was forced to withdraw from all of her classes for the term, and after-effects of the concussion prevented her from taking classes in the spring semester as well.

The suit

Davis duly filed a complaint against the University citing negligence for failing to install safety rails as the proximate cause of her injuries. This complaint noted that the University had knowledge of other students also falling out of loft beds. Valdosta State filed a motion for summary judgment, which was denied. (Summary judgment is granted for the moving party when there is no genuine issue as to any material facts in the case, and based on the facts the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.) The current appeal followed.

 

Is a loft bed an “open and obvious condition”?

 Valdosta State argued that summary judgment should have been granted because the loft bed here was an open and obvious condition, and this removed the University from liability. That is, if a danger is open and obvious, the party responsible for the danger cannot  be held liability for injury that results from that danger with respect to this open and obvious aspect. Georgia law states this in the following fashion: to prevail, a plaintiff must show that “(1) the owner or proprietor had actual or constructive knowledge of the hazard and (2) the plaintiff lacked knowledge of the hazard despite exercising ordinary care.” Ward v. Autry Petroleum Co., 281 Ga. App. 877, 877 (2006), emphasis added.

The point of this law is that, if a person has sufficient knowledge with his or her own eyes of a danger, then the party responsible for the premises where the danger exists cannot be held liable if the person suffers some injury based on the danger. Thus, “even if a defendant “had knowledge of the alleged hazardous condition . . . , [a plaintiff] cannot recover if it is shown that the hazard was open and obvious.” Quoting D’Elia v. Phillips Edison & Co., Ltd., ___ Ga. App. ___, ___ (839 SE2d 721, 724) (2020).

So, in the present case, it is clear that Valdosta State knew that there was a loft bed in the Plaintiff’s room, but it is also clear that Plaintiff was aware that the bed “was raised off the ground and lacked guardrails before she fell.” The Court goes so far as to point out just how “obvious” the danger of falling from a height is — that surely it is amongst the most basic of the dangers of which human beings are aware: ““consciousness of the force of gravity results almost from animal instinct. Certainly a normal child . . . knows that if it steps or slips from a tree, a fence, or other elevated structure, it will fall to the ground and be hurt.” Augusta Amusements v. Powell, 93 Ga. App. 752, 757 (92 SE2d 720) (1956).

For this reason, the trial court did make a mistake in denying the Defendant’s motion for summary judgment, and the Court of Appeals reversed this denial.