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GEORGIA COURT OF APPEALS RE-EMPHASIZES IMPORTANCE OF DETERMINING STATUS OF PLAINTIFF IN PREMISES LIABILITY CLAIM

Posted by H. Lee Pruett

In a premises liability case, it is essential to establish the status of the plaintiff to determine the duty owed by the property owner. A recent case in the Georgia Court of Appeals illustrates the critical distinction between an invitee and a licensee. In Jarrell v. JDC & Associates, LLC, 296 Ga. App. 523 (2009), the Court agreed that the defendants were entitled to summary judgment because the plaintiff was a licensee, not an invitee.

In this case, the plaintiff, an employee of BellSouth, went onto the defendants’ residential commercial property construction site to inspect work performed by a BellSouth vendor and to train another employee. The plaintiff was walking across ground covered by wheat straw when he stepped into a hole hidden by the straw. In his subsequent lawsuit for negligence, the defendant property owners moved for summary judgment, arguing the plaintiff was a licensee and that the defendants had breached no duty owed to him. The trial court granted the motion, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

On appeal, the Court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that he was an invitee. The Court restated the definitions of invitees and licensees and the respective duties owed to each. An invitee is someone who, “by express or implied invitation, has been induced or led to come upon premises for any lawful purpose.” A licensee “is one who is permitted, either expressly or impliedly, to go on the premises of another, but merely for his own interest, convenience, or gratification.” Thus, the property owner owes a greater duty of care to the invitee, that is, “to exercise ordinary care to keep the premises and approaches safe.” The duty owed to a licensee is merely “not to injure the licensee wantonly or willfully.” The test “is whether the party coming onto the business premises had present business relations with the owner or occupier which would render his presence of mutual benefit to both, or whether his presence was for his own convenience, or was for business with one other than the owner or occupier.”

In this case, the Court found no evidence that the defendant property owners even knew the plaintiff was on the property. The plaintiff’s purpose there was to conduct business connected with his employer’s vendor, not the defendants. There was also no evidence that the defendants had invited BellSouth onto the property to check its vendors’ work. The hidden hole was not a mantrap or pitfall because the defendants had not prepared it to cause harm to the plaintiff. Thus, the plaintiff had failed to show the defendants had willfully and wantonly caused him harm. The Court also noted that licensees must be ignorant of the risk involved, and here, the plaintiff testified that he had walked hundreds of construction sites that used straw for erosion control. The plaintiff failed to show the defendants breached the duty owed to him as a licensee and, therefore, the defendants were entitled to judgment as a matter of law.