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GEORGIA COURT OF APPEALS RULES PLAINTIFF MUST DO MORE THAN SPECULATE AS TO CAUSE OF A SLIP AND FALL

Posted by Wm. Daniel Floyd
Jean Benton slipped and fell at the Southeast Georgia Medical Center after leaving her Doctor’s appointment. The accident occurred in the lobby of the Medical Center. She stated it was only at the time of her fall that she felt the floor was slick. As a result of her slip and fall, she suffered a serious injury to her right shoulder.

The issue in this case was whether the Medical Center failed to protect Ms. Benton from a dangerous condition. A business owner has a statutory duty to protect its invitees or guests from dangerous conditions by keeping its building or land in a reasonably safe condition. In this case, like other slip and fall cases, Ms. Benton, as the invitee, had the burden to show that a dangerous condition existed and what that condition was which caused her to fall. The Medical Center moved for summary judgment, arguing that Ms. Benton failed to provide evidence showing that her injury was a result of a dangerous condition. The trial court denied the motion and the medical center appealed to the Georgia Court of Appeals. Glynn-Brunswick Mem’l Hosp. Auth. v. Benton, 2010 Ga. App. LEXIS 344; 2010 Fulton County D. Rep. 1222 (2010).

A Plaintiff must prove what the substance or dangerous condition was that led to the fall and subsequent injury. In determining a business owner’s liability, speculation as to the cause of the fall is insufficient to create a jury issue. The Court of Appeals agreed with the Medical Center and reversed the trial court’s finding. The Court concluded that Ms. Benton failed to present any “evidence sufficient to create an issue of material fact as to [the existence of a hazardous condition on its premises], and therefore there is no evidence on which the jury could find [the Hospital] liable.” The Court re-affirmed that, even when an invitee can show the presence of a slick floor, she must still prove what that substance was and how it was a foreseeable dangerous condition. Additionally, the court pointed out that a business owner is not required to protect an invitee against all potential accidents but rather, must simply keep the premises in a reasonably safe condition.

In Ms. Benton’s case, she stated that after she fell she did not see any liquid on the floor nor were her clothes wet. Benton’s testimony that she fell on some substance while on the Medical Center’s property did not create a sufficient inference that a hazardous condition existed. In expanding on Ms. Benton’s inability to show a hazardous condition existed, the Medical Center offered evidence that the floor had been inspected at least three (3) times that day. The Medical Center also showed that on the date of the accident, the lobby’s floor was inspected shortly before Ms. Benton’s fall. It is a well settled rule that “where the Plaintiff cannot show the existence of a hazardous condition, she cannot prove the cause of her injuries.” Thus, the Court of Appeals concluded that summary judgment in favor of the Medical Center was warranted.

This case is an important guide for property owners to keep in mind when attempting to evaluate potential liability regarding maintenance and inspection plans for their property. While it may be difficult for a claimant to establish that a dangerous condition existed at the time that caused the slip and fall and prove what that condition was, a property owner should be vigilant in keeping their property in a safe condition. It is beneficial to the owner where they can show that they have met their burden by keeping the premises in reasonably safe condition through regularly scheduled inspections. The Medical Center in this case met its burden through documented visual inspections by employees three (3) times a day. To minimize their potential liability in slip and fall cases, each property owner should decide an appropriate inspection plan for their property and be diligent in following that plan.