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Hazard a Guess on Slip-and-Fall
by Ron Davis
A slip-and-fall injury at a Georgia shopping center illustrates the difficulty the courts have in determining liability--if any--for such accidents.
The shopping center is located in the Atlanta area, and the slip-and-fall accident involved an employee of a tenant there. She suffered injuries during business hours while attending to work duties for the tenant.
Those duties included taking loads of cardboard boxes on a hand truck from the tenant store to a dumpster at the edge of the property’s parking area. On the day of the accident and while on a fourth trip to the dumpster, she took a different return route than previously and, after stepping over a small rise in the pavement near the dumpster, slipped on gravel scattered on the pavement. The slip caused her to fall down an incline.
The next day, her husband visited the spot where she fell and later said he found “a significant amount of loose, round, pea-sized asphalt gravel that was the same color as the slope.” He also said that three weeks later, he visited the site again and spotted gravel on the slope. The injured woman sued the shopping center owner on grounds of negligence.
In Georgia, a successful lawsuit based on a slip-and-fall injury requires proof that the owner of the property where the injury occurred had knowledge of the hazard that caused the fall. Also, the injured person must show that he or she did not know of the hazard despite the property owner’s “exercise of ordinary care of his or her property.” The injured woman did not offer any evidence that any shopping center employee knew of the gravel on the slope before the accident. So her claim was valid only if she could show that the shopping center owner knew of the hazard prior to the woman’s fall. The property owner’s primary defense is a showing that he or she has a “reasonable” inspection program in place and that such a program is actually carried out at the time of an accident.
Evidence in the case showed that the shopping center had arranged for a cleaning company to sweep the center’s parking lot, including the dumpster area, every day. But the center’s property manager could not say whether the cleaning crew actually swept the property daily as required.
A Georgia court ruled in favor of the shopping center owner, finding no evidence that the owner knew of the hazard that resulted in the woman’s fall. She appealed that ruling.
A Georgia appellate judge reversed the lower court and referred the case for a trial by jury. Explained the judge, “The center’s owner presented evidence that it had a weekly inspection procedure and that its property manager performed the weekly inspections, but it has not presented any evidence to establish that, as a matter of law, the frequency and extent of the inspections were reasonable under the circumstances…. Because jury questions exist as to whether the inspection procedure was reasonable, we cannot hold that the center’s owner lacked constructive knowledge of the hazard.” (Gibson v. Halpern Enterprises, 2007 WL 3379827 [Ga.App.])
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