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GEORGIA SUPREME COURT RULES THAT A “WET FLOOR” SIGN CAN ITSELF BE A HAZARD AND EXPOSE A PROPERTY OWNER TO LIABILITY

Posted by H. Lee Pruett

In American Multi-Cinema, Inc. v. Brown, 285 Ga. 442 (2009), the Georgia Supreme Court held that a sign warning of a hazard can constitute a hazard itself. In this case, the plaintiff was a customer in the defendant’s movie theater. On the day of the accident, the theater was crowded and moments before the movie was over, the defendant’s employees placed a “wet floor” sign over a spill just outside the theater’s exit door. As the crowd left the theater, the sign collapsed. Because of the press of people, the plaintiff did not see the sign lying flat on the floor. She tripped on the sign, fell to the floor, and sustained serious injuries. She filed suit against the theater, alleging negligence.

The trial court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment. The defendant argued that its employees set the sign up correctly and had no knowledge that the sign had collapsed before the plaintiff tripped over it. The plaintiff countered with expert testimony that the wet floor sign at issue is a type that easily collapses in pedestrian traffic; that it is common industry knowledge that the sign tends to collapse; that the sign creates a tripping hazard when it collapses and so should not be placed in crowded pedestrian areas; and that there were safer, sturdier types of wet floor signs the defendant could have used. The Court of Appeals reversed the grant of summary judgment, and the Georgia Supreme Court granted the defendant’s writ of certiorari.

The Court reemphasized the principles laid down in Robinson v. Kroger Co., 268 Ga. 735 (1997). Under Robinson, the plaintiff has to show evidence that the defendant had actual or constructive knowledge of the hazard; the defendant must then show evidence that the plaintiff’s injury was caused by her own negligence. If the defendant meets this burden, the plaintiff must then show evidence that her own negligence is a question of fact, or evidence that shows the plaintiff’s negligence resulted from the defendant’s own actions or conditions under the defendant’s control. The Court repeated Robinson‘s “admonition” that most premises liability issues “are generally not susceptible of summary adjudication.”

To put it in more concrete terms, this means that issues such as how closely a particular retailer should monitor its premises and approaches; what retailers should know about the property’s condition at any given time; how vigilant patrons must be for their own safety in various settings; and where customers should be held responsible for looking or not looking are all questions that, in general, must be answered by juries as a matter of fact rather than by judges as a matter of law.

In this case, the Georgia Supreme Court found that, while the defendant did not have actual knowledge that the wet floor sign had fallen down, it did have actual knowledge that the sign was put “on the floor directly in the path of a large, oncoming crowd of pedestrians.” The Court held that a jury, not a judge, must decide whether “using this type of sign in areas trafficked by hordes of customers in and of itself creates an unreasonable risk of foreseeable harm to the public in the form of tripping hazards.” The Court stated that a jury could find that the defendant “was in the better position to ascertain the risks to the public of the various approaches to addressing spills.”

In summary, the Court ruled that warning devices can, in certain circumstances, become hazards themselves. The Court also signaled that, in general, most slip and fall cases should be decided by a jury.