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Stewart v. Brown

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Fifth Division

October 17, 2017

STEWART
v.
BROWN.

          MCFADDEN, P. J., BRANCH and BETHEL, JJ.

          MCFADDEN, PRESIDING JUDGE.

         This appeal challenges the grant of summary judgment to the defendant in a slip-and-fall case. Because there exist genuine issues of material fact about the defendant's knowledge of the hazard and the plaintiff's lack of such knowledge, we reverse the grant of summary judgment.

         1. Facts and procedural posture.

         "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." Duff v. Bd. of Regents of Univ. System of Ga., 341 Ga.App. 458 (800 S.E.2d 640) (2017) (citation omitted). A defendant moving for summary judgment may prevail "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 plaintiff's case." Season All Flower Shop v. Rorie, 323 Ga.App. 529-530 (746 S.E.2d 634) (2013) (citation omitted). "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." Smith v. Tenet HealthSystem Spalding, 327 Ga.App. 878 (761 S.E.2d 409) (2014) (citation omitted).

         So viewed, the evidence shows that on July 11, 2015, Emma Stewart attended her mother's funeral at the Piney Grove Missionary Baptist Church in Adel, Georgia. After the service, Stewart began to leave through the front door of the fellowship hall where she had previously entered. But church deacon Alvin Martin told Stewart not to use that door and instead directed her to go out a back door that exited through the church. Stewart followed Martin's directions and went through the back door, where she encountered two stairs leading down to a concrete floor. Stewart had never used the stairs before and as she stepped down she lost her balance, missed the second stair, and fell to the floor. Stewart suffered injuries in the fall, including a broken leg. At her deposition, Stewart testified that when she stepped on the first stair she noticed that the stairs were "so steep" and "so narrow" that she could not see the second stair. She also deposed that the stairs were uneven and that as she began to fall she looked for a handrail to steady herself, but there was nothing to hold on to beside the stairs.

         Martin acknowledged at his deposition that prior to Stewart's fall he was aware that there was an area of the stairs that was uneven, which had caused him concern that someone might fall on the stairs. He testified that the lack of handrails, however, had not given him any concern. Martin further deposed that a few minutes before Stewart's fall, he learned that another woman had also fallen earlier that day.

         Emanuel Brown is the pastor of, and does business as, Piney Grove Missionary Baptist Church. At his deposition, Brown testified that before Stewart's fall there had been discussions in the church about installing a handrail to improve the safety of the stairs. Brown also deposed that he and Martin had discussed the possibility that the narrowness of the steps could have caused Stewart's fall because they were not wide enough for a foot to step on them. Brown conceded that the way in which the church maintained the steps could have been better.

         Stewart filed a complaint against Brown, doing business as the church, seeking damages for her injuries caused by the fall. Brown answered and moved for summary judgment, claiming that he had no knowledge of any hazard and that Stewart had failed to exercise ordinary care for her own safety. The trial court granted the motion. Stewart appeals from that grant of summary judgment.

         2. Premises liability.

         The duty of an owner or occupier of land to an invitee is set forth in OCGA § 51-3-1, which provides: "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." In Robinson v. Kroger Co., 268 Ga. 735 (493 S.E.2d 403) (1997), our Supreme Court further explained:

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.

Id. at 740 (1) (citations omitted). In Robinson, the Supreme Court also provided that "in order to recover for injuries sustained in a slip-and-fall action, an invitee must prove (1) that the defendant had actual or constructive knowledge of the hazard; and (2) that the plaintiff lacked knowledge of the hazard despite the exercise of ordinary care due to actions or conditions within the control of the owner/occupier." Id. at 748-749 (2) (b).

         (a) Hazard ...


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