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SIX FLAG $35 MILLION VERDICT: POSSIBLE EXPANSION OF PREMISES LIABILITY

Posted by Layne Zhou

In 2007, Joshua Martin, then nineteen-years-old, was walking with his brother and a friend from Six Flags Over Georgia to a nearby bus stop, when they were brutally attacked, according to the Athens Banner-Herald. Martin was severely injured by one man who allegedly beat him with brass knuckles and put him in a coma for over a week. Although the bus stop was not on Six Flags property, the four males eventually convicted of the attack on Martin were all seasonal Six Flags employees.

In 2009, Martin sued Six Flags, alleging that the park negligently failed to provide adequate security and negligently failed to keep their premises safe. Six Flags Over Ga. II, L.P. v. Martin, 320 Ga. App. 52 (2013). After a nine-day trial and an interlocutory appeal on an apportionment issue, the Cobb County jury awarded Martin $35 million in damages. The jury apportioned 8% of the award to the four assailants, and the remaining 92%, or $32.2 million to Six Flags. “Six Flags Fights $35M Verdict in Attack Near Park,” Daily Report (July 17, 2015).

Six Flags appealed the case based on the fact that the attack did not occur on Six Flags’ property. Oral arguments in front of the Georgia Court of Appeals were held on July 15. The central issue, according to the Daily Report article, was whether Six Flags could be held liable for an off-site injury; specifically, whether the bus stop constituted an “approach” to the property and whether Six Flags took steps to exercise dominion over the bus stop area.

Georgia law describes an approach as “property directly contiguous, adjacent to, and touching those entryways to premises under the control of an owner or occupier of land, through which the owner or occupier, by express or implied invitation, has induced or led others to come upon his premises for any lawful purpose, and through which such owner or occupier could foresee a reasonable invitee would find it necessary or convenient to traverse while entering or exiting in the course of the business for which the invitation was extended.” Motel Properties v. Miller, 263 Ga. 484, 486 (1993). One exception to this rule is if the landowner has exerted some “positive exercise of dominion” over a public way (or private property), usually referring to a sidewalk or ramp which is directly connected to the approach.

The remarkably high verdict aside, the Appellate Court’s ruling is significant for its potential to extend a landowner’s liability beyond its physical premises and approaches, or the “the last few steps taken by invitees, as opposed to ‘mere pedestrians,’ as they enter or exit the premises,” to include crimes or injuries off its property. Id. at 486. Should the Court uphold Martin’s argument of off-property liability, this decision will have profound impact on all business owners, large and small.