Is it for the jury, or the court, to determine whether or not a plaintiff had “equal knowledge” of a hazard?

Posted in Georgia Court of Appeals on September 1, 2020

July 31, 2020

In the Court of Appeals of Georgia

A20A0903. ALLEN v. ABM AVIATION, INC.

Is it for the jury, or the court, to determine whether or not a plaintiff had “equal knowledge” of a hazard, and whether or not the Defendant took proper care to warn of a danger on its property in a slip and fall case? These are the questions that were presented on Appeal in the current case.

At the Airport

The Plaintiff, Allen, worked at the Atlanta airport for Global Concessions, and on June 2016 she slipped after stepping off an escalator. Prior to the slip, she noticed a man cleaning the floors to her left, as well as “wet floor” signs in that area. However, she turned to the right, and that is when she slipped and fell. She struck her head and lost consciousness briefly. When she came to, she found her clothes were “dripping” wet, although no water was visible to her on the floor. Nor did she see any signs indicating the wet conditions at the spot she landed.

As a result of the fall, she suffered injuries: blurred vision and neck and spinal injuries (the latter requiring surgery).

The Defendant here, ABM, was responsible for cleaning the area where the fall occurred. The man cleaning the floor, who noticed the Plaintiff on the ground after she fell, claims that he’d “had placed three to four wet floor signs in the area where Allen had fallen before she fell.” He also claimed that there was no water on the floor in that area, an opinion stated by airport security who reported to the scene. The latter did notice “a wet floor sign near the spot where Allen slipped.”

These are all typical facts for a slip and fall case, with the two opposing parties slight variations about the conditions and the warning of such conditions.

Superior Knowledge

The claim at the trial court was for negligence against ABM Aviation, based on the superior knowledge that ABM had about the dangerous conditions, and its duty to warn about them. The issue of superior knowledge falls under an area of law called “premises liability,” which roughly means the liability that a property owner has for individuals who come onto the owner’s property. Citing Pipkin v. Azalealand Nursing Home, Inc. (339 Ga. App. 390, 392 (2016)), the trial court quoted: “To recover on a theory of premises liability, a plaintiff must show injury caused by a hazard on an owner or occupier of land’s premises or approaches that the owner or occupier should have removed in the exercise of ordinary care for the safety of the invited public.”

Specific to slip and fall cases, the Pipkin court described two things that a plaintiff must show to prove this liability on the part of the property owner: “(1) the defendant had actual or constructive knowledge of the hazard; and (2) the plaintiff, despite exercising ordinary care for his or her own personal safety, lacked knowledge of the hazard due to the defendant’s actions or to conditions under the defendant’s control” (emphasis added).

The facts show that the first element is met, since the Defendant’s employee was at the site, cleaning the floors.

The Court of Appeals makes short work of the second element, since here the Plaintiff “testified that she saw the employee cleaning another section of the floor and saw a “wet floor” sign as she exited the escalator.” In addition to this, the Court cites photographic evidence at the time of the fall, as well as the Plaintiff’s testimony that she was “looking straight ahead as she walked down the hall, the lighting was fine, and nothing obscured her vision.”

Summary Judgment

The Court held that of these facts together show that the plaintiff knew about the hazard before she slipped, and thus that the Defendant did not have the “superior knowledge” of the risk necessary to create premises liability. As to the Plaintiff’s original claim in this case, that it is up to the jury to decide whether or not the Defendant had “superior knowledge,” the Court quoted the standard rule on summary judgement: “In order to prevail on a motion for summary judgment under OCGA § 9-11-56, [ABM], as the moving party, must show that there exists no genuine issue of material fact, and that the undisputed facts, viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, demand judgment as a matter of law.”

Here, there appears to be some wiggle room, since the Plaintiff’s and other parties’ descriptions of the placement of signs differs — and thus one might have expected the factual question to go to the jury. The Court, however, ruled that the facts as the Plaintiff herself gave them show that her knowledge of the hazard that led to the fall was not less than the knowledge the Defendant had, and the Court of Appeals therefore upheld the lower court’s summary judgement or the Defendant.