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Martin v. Ledbetter

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Second Division

June 29, 2017

MARTIN
v.
LEDBETTER et al. COLSTON
v.
LEDBETTER et al.

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

          Reese, Judge.

         In these companion cases, James Martin and David Colston appeal from the trial court's denial of summary judgment to them on a personal injury complaint[1] filed by the Appellees, David and Lauren Ledbetter.[2] In their complaint, the Appellees alleged that the Appellants negligently conducted inspections of work that had been performed on their water heater's gas exhaust ventilation system (hereinafter, "exhaust vent") and that, as a result of such negligence, their children had been exposed to high levels of carbon monoxide.[3] On appeal from the court's order, the Appellants contend that the trial court erred in denying their motions for summary judgment, arguing, inter alia, that there was no evidence to show that they had a legal duty to inspect the exhaust vent. For the reasons that follow, infra, we reverse.

         Viewed in the light most favorable to the Appellees, as nonmovants, [4] the record shows the following facts. Throughout the relevant time period, the Appellants, Martin and Colston, were employed by the Rome-Floyd Building Inspection Department ("Department"); Martin was an Assistant Building Official, and Colston was employed as a Building Inspector. According to Martin's affidavit, the ordinances and codes of Floyd County and the City of Rome required that all home renovation projects had to be pre-authorized by a permit issued by the Department. Once completed, the permitted renovations had to pass an inspection by an inspector employed by the Department.

         In 2009, the Appellees contracted with Helbing Builders, Inc. ("Helbing"), for renovations to the structural, electrical, mechanical, and plumbing components of their home. Helbing applied for a building permit from the Department. The permit application stated Helbing's intention to "remodel" the Appellees' home, but did not specify what work Helbing was going to perform. Helbing hired a sub-contractor, Crider Plumbing Co. ("Crider"), to perform the plumbing work for the renovation, and Crider obtained a "plumbing" permit from the Department. Among the work Crider performed on the Appellees' house was the installation of an exhaust vent for the water heater. Crider installed the exhaust vent so that it ran from the water heater in the basement to an opening a few feet below the second floor window of the bedroom of one of the Appellees' children.

         On January 27, 2010, Colston conducted a final inspection of the Appellees' home renovation. Although portions of the renovation failed the inspection, those portions did not include the water heater or its exhaust vent. The next day, Martin conducted a second final inspection of the items that had failed Colston's inspection.

         In their affidavits, both Appellants averred that they did not inspect the water heater or its exhaust vent because the Department had not issued a permit authorizing any work on those items. Further, neither the Appellees nor their renovation contractors ever requested the Appellants to inspect the water heater or its exhaust vent.

         In August 2013, a representative of the Atlanta Gas Light Company notified the Appellees that their exhaust vent had been installed improperly and had to be moved. The Appellees immediately sought a medical opinion as to whether their children might have been exposed to harmful levels of carbon monoxide due to the improper placement of the exhaust vent. Based upon the results, the Appellees filed negligence claims against the renovation companies, Helbing and Crider. They also filed negligence claims against the Appellants, Martin and Colston, in their individual capacities, asserting that they had breached their ministerial duty to properly inspect the exhaust vent.

         The Appellants filed separate, but almost identical, motions for summary judgment, asserting that the Appellees had failed to show that they had a duty to perform a ministerial act, i.e., to inspect the exhaust vent, and, therefore, the negligence claims were barred by official immunity. The Appellants also argued that the Appellees' claims were barred by the applicable statutes of limitation and that the Appellees were unable to prove an essential element of their claims. The trial court granted the motions in part, ruling that the Appellees' claims for property damage were barred by the applicable statute of limitation. The trial court denied summary judgment on the remaining claims, ruling that the evidence of record presented disputed issues of fact that required resolution by a jury. This Court granted the Appellants' applications for interlocutory review, and these direct appeals followed.

To prevail at summary judgment under OCGA § 9-11-56, the moving party must demonstrate that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that the undisputed facts, viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, warrant judgment as a matter of law.[5] A defendant may do this by showing the court that the documents, affidavits, depositions and other evidence in the record reveal that there is no evidence sufficient to create a jury issue on at least one essential element of a plaintiff's case. If there is no evidence sufficient to create a genuine issue as to any essential element of a plaintiff's claim, that claim tumbles like a house of cards. All of the other disputes of fact are rendered immaterial. A defendant who will not bear the burden of proof at trial need not affirmatively disprove the nonmoving party's case; instead, the burden on the party moving for summary judgment may be discharged by pointing out by reference to the affidavits, depositions and other documents in the record that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case. If the moving party discharges this burden, the nonmoving party cannot rest on its pleadings, but rather must point to specific evidence giving rise to a triable issue.[6]

         Thus, the Appellants in the instant case would be entitled to summary judgment if they could show that there is an absence of evidence to prove any essential element of the Appellees' negligence claim.[7] With these guiding principles in mind, we turn now to the Appellants' specific claims of error.

         1. The Appellants contend that the trial court erred in denying their motions for summary judgment on the Appellees' negligence claims, arguing that the Appellees failed to present any evidence that showed the Appellants had a legal duty to perform a ministerial act, i.e., inspect the exhaust vent.[8] We agree.

         It is axiomatic that, "[t]o state a cause of action for negligence, a plaintiff must establish the following essential elements: (1) a legal duty; (2) a breach of this duty; (3) an injury; and (4) a causal connection between the breach and the injury."[9]Moreover, "[t]he threshold issue in any cause of action for negligence is whether, and to what extent, the defendant owes the plaintiff a duty of care. Whether a duty exists upon which liability can be based is a question of law. In the absence of a legally cognizable duty, there can be no fault or negligence."[10]

         In this case, the undisputed evidence shows that the home inspections that Martin and Colston performed on behalf of the Department were governed by the Department's practices and procedures. In an affidavit, Martin averred that, "[although] the Department is responsible for home inspections, it is only authorized and required to inspect projects for which a permit has been issued [by the Department]." The affidavit explained that, "[w]ithout the issuance of a permit, the Department cannot otherwise be aware of what specific aspects of a home construction project requires inspection."

         Martin restated these specific facts in his "Statement of Material Facts To Which There Is No Genuine Issue To Be Tried." In its response, the Appellees stated affirmatively that they did not dispute those facts. In so doing, the Appellees effectively conceded that the Appellants had no duty to inspect the work that had been performed on the exhaust vent unless the Department had issued a permit that specifically authorized such work. In fact, in their appellate brief, the Appellees made the following unambiguous concession:

If the permits issued by the Department in connection with the renovation of Appellees' home covered the work performed on the water heater ventilation, then Appellant[s] [had] a ministerial duty to inspect the ventilation. . . . If the permits did not authorize work on the gas exhaust vent, ...

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