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The Mayor and Aldermen of Garden City v. Harris

Supreme Court of Georgia

January 29, 2018

THE MAYOR AND ALDERMEN OF GARDEN CITY
v.
HARRIS et al.

          MELTON, Presiding Justice.

         This case concerns the proper statutory interpretation of the Recreational Property Act, OCGA § 51-3-20 et seq. (RPA), which shields from potential liability landowners who "either directly or indirectly invite[] or permit[] without charge any person to use the[ir] property for recreational purposes." OCGA § 51-3-23. We granted certiorari in this case to determine whether the Court of Appeals erred in concluding that a landowner would not be shielded from potential liability by the RPA where that landowner charged a fee to some people who used the landowner's property for recreational purposes, but did not charge any fee to the injured party who used the property for such purposes. As explained more fully below, because the plain language of the RPA shields a landowner from potential liability under the circumstances presented here, the Court of Appeals erred in concluding otherwise, and we must reverse.

         By way of background, on November 10, 2012, Willie and Kristy Harris, along with their six-year-old daughter, Riley, attended a youth football game at the Garden City Stadium, a facility owned and maintained by the City of Garden City. Willie and Kristy each paid the required $2 admission fee for spectators over the age of six. However, because Riley was only six years old, the Harrises were not required to pay an entrance fee for her, and Riley was admitted to the event free of charge. At one point during the game, while Riley was walking across the bleachers to return to her seat after visiting the concession stand, she slipped and fell between the bench seats and suffered serious injuries after falling to the ground nearly thirty feet below.

         The Harrises sued the City to recover for Riley's injuries, and the City moved for summary judgment, relying on the immunity provided by the RPA. Specifically, OCGA § 51-3-23 states:

Except as specifically recognized by or provided in Code Section 51-3-25, an owner of land who either directly or indirectly invites or permits without charge any person to use the property for recreational purposes does not thereby: (1) Extend any assurance that the premises are safe for any purpose; (2) Confer upon such person the legal status of an invitee or licensee to whom a duty of care is owed; or (3) Assume responsibility for or incur liability for any injury to person or property caused by an act of omission of such persons.

         And, with respect to the exceptions specifically recognized in OCGA § 51-3-25, that code section states in relevant part that:

[n]othing in this article limits in any way any liability which otherwise exists . . . [f]or injury suffered in any case when the owner of land charges the person or persons who enter or go on the land for the recreational use thereof. . . .

OCGA § 51-3-25 (2).

         The City argued that, because Riley was not one of the persons who was charged a fee to use the City's property for recreational purposes, the City could not be held liable for Riley's injuries as a matter of law. However, the trial court denied the City's motion for summary judgment, and the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's ruling on appeal.

         In order to determine whether the Court of Appeals erred in upholding the trial court's ruling, we must analyze the relevant provisions of the RPA mentioned above. In interpreting these statutory provisions, we must presume

that the General Assembly meant what it said and said what it meant. To that end, we must afford the statutory text its plain and ordinary meaning, we must view the statutory text in the context in which it appears, and we must read the statutory text in its most natural and reasonable way, as an ordinary speaker of the English language would . . . [and] if the statutory text is clear and unambiguous, we attribute to the statute its plain meaning, and our search for statutory meaning is at an end.

(Citations and punctuation omitted.) Deal v. Coleman, 294 Ga. 170, 173 (1) (a) (751 S.E.2d 337) (2013).

         With these principles in mind, a natural reading of the plain language of OCGA § 51-3-23 indicates that a landowner remains free from potential liability to any individual person who is injured on the landowner's property who has been allowed to use the property for recreational purposes free of charge. Indeed, a landowner "who either directly or indirectly invites or permits without charge any person to use the property for recreational purposes does not thereby . . . [c]onfer upon such person the legal status of an invitee or licensee to whom a duty of care is owed; or . . . [a]ssume responsibility for or incur liability for any injury to person or property caused by an act of omission of such persons." (Emphasis supplied.) The statute specifically and unambiguously references "any person" who is not charged a fee to use a landowner's property for recreational purposes as being such a "person" to whom the landowner does not owe a duty of care. Because the statutory text of OCGA § 51-3-23 is clear and unambiguous, we attribute to the statute its plain meaning of shielding landowners from potential liability to individual persons whom they have invited to use their property for recreational purposes free of charge, "and our search for statutory meaning is at an end." Deal, supra, 294 Ga. at 173 (1) (a).

         Our interpretation of the plain meaning of OCGA § 51-3-23 is not diminished when the statute is considered in the context of the exceptions to the statute set forth in OCGA § 51-3-25. Again, pursuant to OCGA § 51-3-25 (2): "[n]othing in this article limits in any way any liability which otherwise exists . . . [f]or injury suffered in any case when the owner of land charges the person or persons who enter or go on the land for the recreational use thereof." (Emphasis supplied.) Read in conjunction with the other provisions of the statute, it is plain that, in any case where the injured party is a person who has been charged a fee to use the landowner's property for recreational purposes, the landowner would not be immune from potential liability to such paying persons, because the landowner only receives the protections of OCGA ยง 51-3-23 with respect to those persons who have not been charged a fee to use the property for recreational purposes. This is the case because any individual person who has been or persons who have been charged a fee to use the landowner's ...


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