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Duff v. Board of Regents of University System of Georgia

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Second Division

May 24, 2017


          DOYLE, C. J., MILLER, P. J, and REESE, J.

          Doyle, Chief Judge.

         In this slip-and-fall case, plaintiff Mollie Duff appeals from the grant of summary judgment to defendant Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia. Duff contends that the trial court erred by concluding that rainwater on the floor where she slipped was not, as a matter of law, a hazardous condition. For the reasons that follow, we reverse.

Summary judgment is proper when there is no genuine issue of material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. A de novo standard of review applies to an appeal from a grant of summary judgment, and we view the evidence, and all reasonable conclusions and inferences drawn from it, in the light most favorable to the nonmovant.[1]

         So viewed, the record shows that Duff was a student at Georgia Perimeter College. One morning, her father dropped her off at school at approximately 7:45 a.m.; it had not been raining, and the weather "was clear." After her first class ended, Duff went to her second class, U.S. history, in the same building from 10:00 to 11:15 a.m. Her classrooms did not have windows, so she was unable to see that it had begun raining outside at some point after she arrived. When her history class ended, Duff began her walk to her third class in another building. She first exited the history classroom, walked down the hall, covering the length of her classroom and making it half-way past the next classroom (a computer lab), when she slipped and fell on rainwater that had been brought in by other students entering the building to go to their classes. Duff did not see any water until she fell and noticed water on the floor.

         Duff suffered injuries from her fall and sued the Board on a premises liability theory. The Board answered and, following discovery, moved for summary judgment. The trial court granted the motion on the ground that Duff failed to meet her threshold burden to show that the rainwater on the floor amounted to a hazardous condition, i.e. an unusual or unreasonable amount. Duff challenges this ruling on appeal.

         In Robinson v. Kroger, [2] the Supreme Court of Georgia clarified and summarized Georgia premises liability law as follows:

One who owns or occupies land and by express or implied invitation, induces or leads others to come upon his premise for any lawful purpose, . . . is liable in damages to such persons for injuries caused by his failure to exercise ordinary care in keeping the premises and approaches safe. While not an insurer of the invitee's safety, the owner/occupier is required to exercise ordinary care to protect the invitee from unreasonable risks of harm of which the owner/occupier has superior knowledge. The owner/occupier owes persons invited to enter the premises a duty of ordinary care to have the premises in a reasonably safe condition and not to expose the invitees to unreasonable risk or to lead them into a dangerous trap. The owner/occupier is not required to warrant the safety of all persons from all things, but to exercise the diligence toward making the premises safe that a good business person is accustomed to use in such matters. This includes inspecting the premises to discover possible dangerous conditions of which the owner/occupier does not have actual knowledge, and taking reasonable precautions to protect invitees from dangers foreseeable from the arrangement or use of the premises.[3]

         The Court also expressly

remind[ed] members of the judiciary that the "routine" issues of premises liability, i.e., the negligence of the defendant and the plaintiff, and the plaintiff's lack of ordinary care for personal safety are generally not susceptible of summary adjudication, and that summary judgment is granted only when the evidence is plain, palpable, and undisputed.[4]

         With this legal background in mind, we turn to the facts of this case. The trial court relied on precedent stating that "[t]he risk of harm imposed by some accumulation of water on the floor . . . during rainy days is not unusual or unreasonable in itself, but is one to which all who go out on a rainy day may be exposed and which all may expect or anticipate."[5] But this concept has been expressly limited by the Supreme Court of Georgia: "[S]ince that concept is based on the common knowledge that the ground outside gets wet on rainy days, it cannot properly be applied to a portion of an interior space where an invitee has no reason to expect water to accumulate on the floor."[6]

         Here, it is undisputed that Duff lacked any actual knowledge that it was raining and that she fell in an interior portion of the building while walking between classrooms. A building diagram shows that the closest entrance was more than three classrooms away from where she slipped and fell. These circumstances bring Duff's case outside the line of cases where our courts have held that invitees, as a matter of law, must be charged with the knowledge that rainwater will accumulate on the floor where they fell.[7]

         Further, with respect to the amount of water that had accumulated, the record, when construed in favor of Duff as required on summary judgment, [8] contains testimony that there was "standing water, " that Duff "felt the water after [she] hit the floor, " and that the water made her skirt, leg, and hands wet when she tried to get up. There is evidence that approximately 882 students had classes that were about to begin in Duff's building, and a professor who came to aid Duff testified that there was "a lot" of water on the hallway floor from students waiting to enter their classes, but the amount of water in the spot of the fall after Duff fell was comparable to taking a wet paper towel and wiping it across the floor. In granting summary judgment, the trial court relied on this testimony to conclude that there was no hazard presented by the water, but this ignores the conflicting testimony from Duff that there was "standing water." Any conflict in the evidence is properly resolved by a jury, not by a court, [9] and viewed with the evidence that Duff's denim skirt, leg, and hands had become wet from contacting the floor where she fell, this evidence does not demand a finding that no hazard existed.

         Based on this record, the absence of an unreasonable hazard is not "plain, palpable, and undisputed."[10] "Where reasonable minds can differ as to the conclusion to be reached with regard to questions of whether an owner/occupier breached the duty of care to invitees and whether an invitee exercised reasonable care for personal safety, summary adjudication is not appropriate."[11] Based on the location of Duff's fall and the evidence of "standing water" where she fell, the trial court erred by granting summary judgment to the Board on the ground that such an amount of water ...

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