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Williams v. Johnson

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Fourth Division

January 24, 2018


          DILLARD, C. J., RAY and SELF, JJ.

          Dillard, Chief Judge.

         Hope "Elmo" Williams appeals the trial court's denial of his motion for summary judgment in Joshua Johnson's premises-liability case against him, in which Johnson sought to recover damages for a serious injury he suffered while on Williams's property. Specifically, Williams argues that the trial court erred in denying his motion because (1) Johnson admittedly had superior knowledge of the hazards associated with the conduct that caused his injury; (2) he breached no legal duty owed to Johnson; (3) Johnson assumed the risk of the injury by his conduct; (4) Johnson failed to exercise ordinary care for his own safety; and (5) Johnson failed to establish the essential element of proximate cause. For the reasons set forth infra, we reverse.

          Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Johnson (i.e., the nonmoving party), [1] the record shows that Williams, who is paralyzed from the chest down, was a close family friend of Johnson. In March 2014, Williams hired Johnson to help him with various home-repair projects. At the time Williams hired him, Johnson had approximately 18 years of experience working for roofing companies, which involved tasks such as being a "laborer, roofing houses, [and] hanging gutters. . . ." On May 1, 2014, Johnson went to Williams's home to help him "frame out a bathroom" in his basement.[2] As part of the project, Johnson and Williams planned to use crow bars to remove a mirror that was attached to three horizontal wooden boards with liquid nails (which are a type of glue). The first board was removed without incident, and Johnson carried it outside and placed it in a debris pile in the yard. Johnson returned to the basement, and when he and Williams attempted to remove the second board, which was "flush to the glass, " the mirror "started breaking and . . . shattering, like spider webbing."[3] And while the board did ultimately detach from most of the mirror, there was still an 8 to 12 inch shard of glass glued to it.

         According to Johnson, once he took the second board outside to discard it, he noticed that the piece of glass was "on the back of the board and it started getting skinnier [as it] came up, . . . and came to . . . a point" and was "[v]ery sharp." Johnson carried the board vertically with one hand on each side over to a large trash can near the debris pile. Although Johnson had placed the first board in the designated debris pile, he decided to dispose of the second board in the trash can because, if he put it in the debris pile, the glass could potentially break in the yard when subsequent boards were discarded there. But when Johnson placed the board into the trash, intending "to knock the glass off" with "a tool or a hammer[, ]" the glass immediately cut both main arteries in his right hand, slicing "all of [his] ligaments . . . ."

         Although Johnson's deposition testimony is consistent regarding when his injury occurred, it is very unclear and contradictory as to exactly how it occurred and what exactly caused the shard of glass to come into contact with his hand. When first asked whether placing the board in the trash caused it to "bounce back up towards [him][, ]" Johnson said that he did not know because it "happened so fast." Johnson also testified that he did not know if any of the glass broke off of the board when the injury occurred or if he ever "fully let go of the board before [he] was injured." But Johnson could not rule out the possibility that he may have let go of the board, which caused it to bounce in a way that the glass shard came back up and sliced his hand.

         Later, Johnson testified definitively that the board "never bounced[, ]" but also said, "I had the board and I picked it up and as I'm placing it in there [and] then I don't know what happened next."[4] And shortly thereafter, Johnson claimed that he did know whether the board bounced because "you would have heard it[;]" however, he did not say whether he heard anything. Similarly, despite his earlier claim that he lacked knowledge as to whether the glass shard detached from the board, Johnson testified that the large shard of glass did not break off of the board and that he did not even know if it was the glass "that went through [his] hand." Nevertheless, Johnson conceded that he did not know what else could have caused such a serious cut other than the sharp piece of glass. Regardless, when his hand was cut, Johnson's hand bled so badly that the blood quickly soaked through a new roll of paper towels and at least two cloth towels."[5]

         Immediately after the injury, Williams's wife called 911, and paramedics responded to transport Johnson to the hospital for treatment. The laceration to Johnson's hand was so severe that he had two emergency surgeries, spent nine days in the hospital, and attended nine weeks of physical-therapy sessions. Since the incident, Johnson has suffered constant pain in his forearm, developed blood clots in his hand, can no longer lift heavy items, and needs assistance from others with ordinary daily tasks such as tying his shoes and buttoning his pants. Additionally, Johnson has lost feeling in three fingers on his right hand, and he has to do everything left handed that he did right handed prior to cutting his hand. Johnson has also been unemployed since the incident, as he does not know what kind of work he will be able to do with only one functioning hand.

         On February 24, 2016, Johnson filed a complaint against Williams, asserting a premises-liability claim and seeking compensatory damages for his injury, medical expenses, and attorney fees. Williams responded, denying the material allegations in the complaint and asserting several affirmative defenses. Then, following discovery, Williams filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing, inter alia, that Johnson's premises-liability claim failed because his knowledge of the risks and dangers associated with carrying and disposing of the large (and very sharp) piece of glass was superior to that of Williams. After the parties filed responsive briefs, the trial court held a hearing at which only legal arguments were made, and ultimately, the court denied Williams's summary-judgment motion. Thereafter, the trial court granted Williams's request for a certificate of immediate review. This Court then granted Williams's request for an interlocutory appeal, and this appeal follows.

          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."[6] Additionally, 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."[7] With these guiding principles in mind, we turn now to Williams's specific claims of error.

         1. Williams argues that the trial court erred by denying his motion for summary judgment because Johnson admittedly had superior knowledge of the hazards associated with his chosen method of carrying and disposing of a board with a sharp piece of glass attached. We agree that Johnson's own testimony establishes that he had at least equal, if not superior, knowledge as Williams did of the hazard that caused his injury, which precludes recovery on his premises-liability claim.

         In Georgia, in order to prevail on a premises-liability claim, a plaintiff must prove that "(1) the owner or proprietor had actual or constructive knowledge of the hazard and (2) the plaintiff lacked knowledge of the hazard despite exercising ordinary care."[8] Indeed, as a general rule, owners or occupiers of land are "not insurers of the safety of invitees."[9] Thus, in a premises-liability case (such as this one), the mere fact that Johnson was injured, without more, "does not give rise to liability on the part of [Williams]."[10] Instead, the true basis of a property owner's liability for an injury to its invitee is the owner's "superior knowledge of a condition that may expose the invitees to an unreasonable risk of harm."[11] Moreover,

it is the plaintiff's knowledge of the specific hazard which caused the [injury] that determines whether the plaintiff can prevail on a premises[-]liability claim, not merely the plaintiff's knowledge of generally prevailing hazardous conditions or of other hazardous conditions in the area which plaintiff observes and avoids.[12]

         Put another way, as to premises-liability claims, "[r]ecovery is allowed only when the [owner] had knowledge and the invitee did not."[13] Lastly, we are mindful that in a premises-liability case, "issues of the defendant's negligence, the plaintiff's negligence, and the plaintiff's lack of ordinary care for his own safety are generally not susceptible of summary adjudication."[14] But when, as here, "the evidence is plain, palpable, and undisputable ...

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