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Little v. Jim-Lar Corp.

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Fifth Division

October 30, 2019

LITTLE et al.


          McFadden, Chief Judge.

         Summary judgment may be granted on the basis that a party bearing the burden of proof has no evidence to support an essential element of her case. So it is here.

         Myra Little and her guardian and conservator, Elbert Jenkins, [1] brought an action for negligence against McDonald's Corporation, one of its franchised restaurants, and the owner of that restaurant. They asserted in their complaint that Little was harmed physically and psychologically by a severe allergic reaction to a peach pie served to her instead of the apple pie she had ordered. In granting summary judgment to the defendants, the trial court held, among other things, that Little's verified interrogatory responses were inadmissible due to her incompetence, and we find no error in that ruling. The remaining evidence does not create a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the defendants breached a duty of care, so we affirm.

         Summary judgment is proper "if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." OCGA § 9-11-56 (c). Where, as here, the moving party

will not bear the burden of proof at trial[, it] need not affirmatively disprove the nonmoving party's case, but may point out by reference to the evidence in the record that there is an absence of evidence to support any essential element of the nonmoving party's case. Where a defendant moving for summary judgment discharges this burden, the nonmoving party cannot rest on its pleadings, but rather must point to specific evidence giving rise to a triable issue. Summary judgments enjoy no presumption of correctness on appeal, and an appellate court must satisfy itself de novo that the requirements of OCGA § 9-11-56 (c) have been met. In our de novo review of the grant of a motion for summary judgment, we must view the evidence, and all reasonable inferences drawn therefrom, in the light most favorable to the nonmovant.

Cowart v. Widener, 287 Ga. 622, 623-624 (1) (a) (697 S.E.2d 779) (2010) (citations and punctuation omitted).

         1. Exclusion of Little's verified interrogatory responses.

         The plaintiffs argue that the trial court erred in ruling that Little's interrogatory responses were not admissible. In those responses, Little described the incident at the center of this case. She stated that she ordered an apple pie from the restaurant, instead received a peach pie in a generic container, had a severe allergic reaction after taking a bite of the peach pie, received treatment for that reaction, and subsequently developed a debilitating psychological condition that she attributes to the incident. Little signed a sworn verification of her interrogatory responses, and so the trial court could have considered the responses as evidence when ruling on the motion for summary judgment. See OCGA § 9-11-56 (e); Falcone Intl. v. Clowes, 184 Ga.App. 442, 443 (1) (361 S.E.2d 708) (1987). See also Los Angeles Tile Co. v. Chatham County Bd. of Tax Assessors, 209 Ga.App. 245, 247-248 (433 S.E.2d 82) (1993) (interrogatory responses must be verified to be considered as evidence on summary judgment). But the trial court did not consider the responses as evidence, holding that they were inadmissible because Little was "incompetent." "We address this issue first in order to determine if these [responses] were properly [excluded] by the trial court in ruling on the motion[s] for summary judgment." Hayes v. SNS Partnership, LP, 326 Ga.App. 185, 186 (1) (756 S.E.2d 273) (2014) (physical precedent). And we find that the plaintiffs have not shown that the trial court abused his discretion in this ruling. See Hungry Wolf/Sugar & Spice v. Langdeau, 338 Ga.App. 750, 751 (791 S.E.2d 850) (2016) (trial court's decision to admit or exclude evidence on summary judgment is reviewed for abuse of discretion).

         Rule 601 of Georgia's evidence code provides that, "[e]xcept as otherwise provided in [Title 24, Chapter 6], every person is competent to be a witness." OCGA § 24-6-601. Nevertheless, "a court has the power to rule that a witness is incapable of testifying[.]" United States v. Gates, 10 F.3d 765, 766 (I) (11th Cir. 1993) (construing Fed.R.Evid. 601). See generally State v. Almanza, 304 Ga. 553, 556-559 (820 S.E.2d 1) (2018) (reviewing court looks for guidance to federal appellate case law where provision of Georgia's new evidence code is materially identical to provision in Federal Rules of Evidence). The defendants raised the issue of Little's competence to give the verified responses in their motions for summary judgment and the trial court held a hearing on those motions, but the plaintiffs did not include a transcript of that hearing in the appellate record. Without a transcript, we must presume that the hearing evidence supported the trial court's ruling. See Payne v. Myatt, ___ Ga.App. ___, ___ (1) (___ S.E.2d ___) (Case No. A19A1560, decided Aug. 21, 2019); Mashburn Constr. v. CharterBank, 340 Ga.App. 580, 582 (1) (798 S.E.2d 251) (2017).

         The plaintiffs argue that, as a matter of law, Little was not incompetent to verify one of the sets of interrogatory responses in the record because she had not yet been appointed a guardian in the separate guardianship proceeding. (The record also contains a set of interrogatory responses that Little verified after the ruling in the guardianship proceeding.) But Little's qualification for the appointment of a guardian (and the timing of a ruling on that appointment) does not determine the trial court's authority to disregard her testimony. Under OCGA § 29-4-1 (a), a "court may appoint a guardian for an adult only if the court finds the adult lacks sufficient capacity to make or communicate significant responsible decisions concerning his health or safety." This is not one of the statutory exceptions to OCGA § 24-6-601, which, as stated above, provides that "every person is competent to be a witness." (Emphasis supplied.) In fact, "Rule 601 allows one not mentally competent to testify, and it assumes that jurors are capable of evaluating a witness's testimony in light of the fact that he is not mentally competent, [although] a court has the power to rule that a witness is incapable of testifying[.]" Gates, 10 F.3d at 766 (I) (construing Fed.R.Evid. 601, which is materially identical to OCGA § 24-4-601). Simply put, one may or may not be capable of testifying regardless of one's need for the appointment of a guardian. So the trial court was authorized to disregard Little's verified interrogatory responses even though the verification preceded the ruling in the guardianship proceeding.

         2. Other evidence regarding the incident.

         After determining that Little's interrogatory responses were not admissible, the trial court held that the plaintiffs had failed to point to evidence that the defendants had breached a duty owed to Little, noting that there was "no first[-]hand knowledge about the subject incident . . . in the record." Based on our de novo review of the record, we agree that the plaintiffs have not shown a genuine issue of material fact on this issue.

         The plaintiffs argue that they identified in Little's interrogatory responses witnesses with knowledge of the incident, including the restaurant employee who gave Little the pie. But they did not offer ...

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