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Inc. v. Hall

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Third Division

October 17, 2017



          RICKMAN, JUDGE

         Gardner Sewell Hall brought a negligence action against St. Joseph's Hospital of Atlanta, Inc. to recover for personal injuries he sustained when he fell in the hospital's visitor parking deck; his wife asserted a claim for loss of consortium. St. Joseph's appeals from the trial court's order denying its motion for summary judgment.[1] For reasons that follow, we reverse.

         "A de novo standard of review applies to an appeal from a grant or denial 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." (Citation and punctuation omitted.) El Ranchero Mexican Restaurant v. Hiner, 316 Ga.App. 115, 116, n.1 (728 S.E.2d 761) (2012).

         Viewed in the light most favorable to Hall, the evidence shows that during the week of February 10, 2014, Atlanta was hit with an ice storm. Hall's wife had a colonoscopy scheduled for February 14, 2014, and Hall called her doctor the night before or early that morning to confirm that the doctor would be there. The morning of February 14, Hall drove his wife to St. Joseph's and let her out in front of the hospital's main lobby. Hall then drove to the east visitor parking deck, where he had been many times before, entering the deck at approximately 8:45 a.m. Hall drove into the deck on a lower, covered level, and proceeded to the upper, uncovered level, where he parked between two cars. He was not aware of any ice on the pavement of the parking deck as he drove into the deck, but deposed, "[t]hat's not to say there was none there." When Hall opened his car door, he did not look for ice or snow before exiting his car, and took approximately three steps before falling on invisible or black ice. He did not see the ice before he fell. Hall sustained injuries to his elbow and shoulder from the fall.

         After his fall, Hall was taken to St. Joseph's emergency room. One of the emergency medical technicians who responded to the scene deposed that she had trouble with her footing between the ambulance and Hall's car. Footage from a surveillance camera in the parking deck, taken shortly after Hall's fall, shows Hall sitting on the ground near his car. The footage also shows that visible ice and snow remained under and around some of the parked cars and around dividers in and outside the parking area, but not in the area where Hall was sitting.

         As a general rule, St. Joseph's security officers patrol the visitor parking deck every two hours, with their primary role being to provide security. During inclement weather conditions, the security officers will also look for snow and ice and communicate information about any ice patches they discover to the engineering department. When they discover an ice patch, the officers are trained to wait until engineering arrives to determine what needs to be done. The week of February 10, 2014 was considered a winter weather event at St. Joseph's, and during such an event, employees are not allowed to go home; they sleep at work. On the morning of February 14, 2014, the visitor parking deck was completely closed from 5:00 a.m. until approximately 7:00 a.m. due to snow and ice conditions. That morning, prior to Hall's fall, a security officer patrolled the visitor deck at 2:45 a.m., 5:05 a.m., and 7:13 a.m.

         During the week of February 10, 2014, employees in St. Joseph's engineering department patrolled St. Joseph's entire campus every other hour, around the clock. On February 14, several employees in the engineering department worked together to clear the visitor's parking deck of snow and ice. Some employees drove a pick up truck with a spreader to spread sand and salt on the driving lanes of the deck, and other employees spread it by hand in areas that they could not get to with the truck and in parking spaces where cars had pulled out. The morning of February 14, the lead mechanic in the engineering department spread sand and salt with the truck spreader at 3:00 a.m., 5:00 a.m., and 6:00 a.m. At 7:00 a.m., he walked the deck on patrol, using a push spreader to treat the travelable areas, and did not encounter any slick patches or black ice in those areas. Four other engineers were with him at the time, some on foot and others in the truck. Prior to Hall's fall, St. Joseph's was not aware of any other falls on ice outside the hospital during the week of February 10.

         Hall and his wife sued St. Joseph's for negligence and loss of consortium. Following discovery, St. Joseph's moved for summary judgment, contending that it had not breached any duty owed to Hall to discover and remove naturally accumulating ice in winter weather, that it lacked knowledge of the ice upon which Hall fell, and that Hall had failed to exercise ordinary care for his own safety. The trial court denied St. Joseph's motion, ruling that jury questions remained as to whether St. Joseph's had superior knowledge of the specific danger of black ice in the upper level of the parking deck and whether St. Joseph's actions in attempting to clear the ice made the icy conditions less obvious.

         1. St. Joseph's contends that the trial court erred in holding that questions of fact remained as to whether it had superior knowledge of the patch of black ice on which Hall fell and whether its' remedial efforts to clear the parking deck of snow and ice contributed to the icy conditions.

         "Where an owner or occupier of land, by express or implied invitation, induces or leads others to come upon his premises for any lawful purpose, he is liable in damages to such persons for injuries caused by his failure to exercise ordinary care in keeping the premises and approaches safe." OCGA § 51-3-1. This duty of ordinary care requires the owner or occupier to protect the invitee from unreasonable risks of harm of which the owner or occupier has superior knowledge. Robinson v. Kroger Co., 268 Ga. 735, 740 (1) (493 S.E.2d 403) (1997). To recover for his injuries, Hall must prove that: (1) St. Joseph's had actual or constructive knowledge of the hazard; and (2) he, despite exercising ordinary care for his own personal safety, lacked knowledge of the hazard due to St. Joseph's actions or to conditions under St. Joseph's control. See American Multi-Cinema, Inc. v. Brown, 285 Ga. 442, 444 (2) (679 S.E.2d 25) (2009).

         (a) Superior knowledge.

         Although St. Joseph's and Hall knew that an ice storm had recently occurred, "knowledge of the generally prevailing hazardous conditions is not sufficient to establish actual or constructive knowledge by the hospital or [Hall] of the specific invisible ice hazard on the upper deck which caused the slip and fall." Columbus Doctors Hosp., Inc. v. Thompson, 224 Ga.App. 682, 683 (482 S.E.2d 705) (1997). There is also no evidence that St. Joseph's "had actual knowledge of the invisible ice hazard on the upper deck, despite evidence that the hospital conducted regular inspections of the premises." Id. St. Joseph's general knowledge that melted ice or snow in the parking deck can re-freeze if temperatures drop and that black ice is slippery does not equate to knowledge of the specific ice hazard that caused Hall to fall. Although visible snow and ice remained in areas in and around the parking deck, the evidence does not show that either Hall or St. Joseph's had actual knowledge of the specific invisible ice hazard that caused Hall's fall.

         We now consider whether the evidence shows that St. Joseph's had constructive knowledge of the ice hazard. "To establish constructive knowledge, [Hall] must show that (1) a [St. Joseph's] employee was in the immediate area of the hazard and could have easily seen the substance or (2) the foreign substance remained long enough that ordinary diligence by [St. Joseph's] employees should have discovered it." (Citations and punctuation omitted; emphasis in original.) Pirkle v.Quiktrip Corp., 325 Ga.App. 597, 601 (2) (b) (754 S.E.2d 387) ...

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