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Avis Rent A Car System, LLC v. Johnson

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Fifth Division

October 31, 2019

AVIS RENT A CAR SYSTEM, LLC et al.
v.
JOHNSON; and vice versa.

          MCFADDEN, C. J., MCMILLIAN, P. C. and MERCIER, J.

          McFadden, Chief Judge.

         Brianna Johnson was seriously injured when she was struck by a sport utility vehicle that had been stolen from an Avis car rental lot in downtown Atlanta. She sued appellants Avis Rent A Car System, LLC, Avis Budget Group, Inc., and Peter Duca, a regional security manager for Avis Budget Group (together, Avis), as well as CSYG, Inc., the operator of the downtown Avis location, and Yonas Gebremichael, CSYG's owner. (Johnson also sued Byron Perry, the former CSYG employee who stole the vehicle, but she dismissed him without prejudice before trial.)

         After a 13-day trial, the jury returned a verdict finding that Johnson was entitled to recover from Avis Rent A Car System and Avis Budget Group, but not from CSYG, Gebremichael, or Duca, and awarded Johnson $7 million in damages.

         Avis filed a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict or, in the alternative, for a new trial as to liability. The trial court denied the motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict but granted a new trial as to liability. Avis appeals the denial of its motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. Johnson appeals the grant of Avis's motion for new trial on the issue of liability.

         We hold that under longstanding Georgia authority, any breach of duty was not the proximate cause of Johnson's injuries, so Avis is entitled to judgment on Johnson's claims based on Avis's own negligence. We also hold that the jury's exoneration of Avis's employees requires judgment in Avis's favor on Johnson's claims based on Avis's vicarious liability. So we reverse the denial of Avis's motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and dismiss as moot Johnson's appeal from the grant of new trial.

         1. Facts and procedural posture.

         Viewed in the light most favorable to Johnson, Jones v. Sperau, 275 Ga. 213 (1) (563 S.E.2d 863) (2002), the trial evidence showed that CSYG operated an Avis car rental lot on Courtland Street in downtown Atlanta. CSYG hired Byron Perry to wash and refuel cars at the location. On the night of August 23, 2013, after the Avis lot had closed, Perry stole a Ford Edge sport utility vehicle from the lot, intending to sell it.

         The Ford Edge was driven around Atlanta at regular speeds for hours. But shortly before midnight, five hours after the lot had closed, the driver of the stolen Ford Edge was fleeing from police when the vehicle crashed into a brick wall. Johnson and her friend, Adrienne Smith, were sitting on the wall at the time of the collision and were seriously injured. Perry, who was in the vehicle, fled from the scene and later pled guilty to multiple crimes arising from the incident, including theft by taking, failure to maintain lane, attempting to elude police, reckless driving, and hit and run.

         Johnson filed this lawsuit. She alleged that Avis was liable for negligently failing to secure its vehicle and for negligently hiring, training, supervising, and retaining Gebremichael and CSYG. She also alleged that Avis was vicariously liable for Gebremichael's and CSYG's negligence.

         The jury returned a verdict in favor of Johnson for $7 million. On the special verdict form, the jury found that Avis Rent A Car System and Avis Budget Group were 100 percent at fault. It found that Duca, CSYG, Gebremichael, and Perry, the vehicle thief, were zero percent at fault. Finally, it found that the Avis defendants, CSYG, and Gebremichael were not liable for punitive damages, but that Perry (who was no longer a party) was liable for punitive damages.

         Avis filed a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict or in the alternative for a new trial as to liability. The trial court denied the motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, finding, among other things, that Avis knew of the risk of car thefts and that the harm to Johnson was a reasonably foreseeable consequence of car theft. The trial court granted the motion for new trial as to liability. It found that the verdict was contrary to the evidence or strongly against the weight of the evidence. See OCGA §§ 5-5-20, 5-5-21. The court found that because the "[j]ury's verdict did not find any negligence on the part of CSYG, Yonas Gebremichael, Peter Duca or Byron Perry, the evidence [did] not support a finding of liability on the part of Avis." The trial court certified its order for immediate review, we granted the parties' applications for interlocutory appeal, and these appeals followed. We first address issues regarding Johnson's claims that Avis is liable for its own negligence. We then address issues regarding Johnson's claims that Avis is vicariously liable for its employees' negligence. We hold that Avis is entitled to judgment on all claims.

         2. Avis's direct negligence.

         Avis argues that it was entitled to judgment notwithstanding the verdict on Johnson's claims that it negligently failed to secure the vehicle and negligently hired and supervised CSYG and Gebremichael, because it owed Johnson no duty and the proximate cause of Johnson's injuries was Perry's intervening criminal act. We hold that Perry's intervening criminal act was ...


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