Posted by Christina Cribbs
Gwendolyn Williams, age 83, was killed when she was attacked by an 8-foot-long alligator in the planned, residential golf community owned by Landings Association, Inc. After her death in 2007, Williams’ estate brought a lawsuit against Landings for nuisance and premises liability.
The Landings premises was adjacent to wild marshland on Skidaway Island in Coastal Georgia. It was well-known that wild alligators were present in the lagoons in the community. In fact, there was testimony that Williams herself was aware of the alligators on the premises. Both Williams’ son and her son-in-law testified that they had stopped the car on separate occasions to show Williams an alligator while driving through the community. Landings used this testimony to argue that Williams assumed the risk of an alligator attack, and as a result, her estate was not entitled to recover from Landings. Landings’ assumption of the risk argument failed at the trial court level, and in the Court of Appeals.
We first reported on Landings Association, Inc. v. Williams in 2011, shortly after the Court of Appeals issued its decision in the case. (See Levy, S.J., “Size Matters – At Least When It Comes to Alligators,” Georgia Insurance Defense Blog, May 3, 2011). The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision, which denied Landings’ partial motion for summary judgment, finding questions of fact about whether Landings took reasonable precautions to prevent Williams from being attacked by an alligator on the premises. Williams, 309 Ga. App. 321 (2011). Specifically, the Court of Appeals cited Landings’ policy of removing alligators over 7 feet in length from the lagoons. The Court of Appeals opined that due to this policy, there was no competent evidence that Williams was aware that there were alligators over 7 feet long in the lagoons.
On June 18, 2012, the Georgia Supreme Court weighed in and reversed the lower courts’ decision to deny Landings’ partial motion for summary judgment. Landings Ass’n v. Williams, 291 Ga. 397 (2012). The Supreme Court based its decision on the fact that Williams had equal knowledge of the presence of alligators on the premises and, therefore, assumed the risk of an alligator attack when walking at night near a lagoon she knew was inhabited by alligators. The Supreme Court stated “[a] reasonable adult who is not disabled understands that small alligators have large parents,” apparently taking a dig at the Court of Appeals’ argument that Landings’ policy for removing alligators over a certain length meant that Williams had no knowledge that any alligators over 7 feet long were on the premises.
Interestingly, the Supreme Court used an objective standard in its discussion of Landings’ assumption of the risk defense. Although the Plaintiff in Williams subjectively understood the risks of an alligator attack, the Court’s analysis suggests that summary judgment may be appropriate in a case even where plaintiff does not subjectively understand the risk involved, but where a reasonable person would understand the risk.