Understanding the Equal Knowledge Defense in Premises Liability

Among the most common defenses in slip and fall accident cases is knowledge of the dangerous condition. When the injured person has reason to know of the danger that hurts them ahead of time, they cannot win their case. This defense is based on the idea that, since the injured person knew of the danger, he or she should have taken reasonable precautions to avoid injury. Although this defense is most often invoked when a danger is open and obvious, the defense can be applied even in cases when the danger is not obvious, but the injured person actually knew about it. The dynamics of this defense were addressed in a recent Georgia Court of Appeals decision, Forest Cove Apartments, LLC v. Wilson.

Wilson arose from the injury of a business owner at an apartment complex in Atlanta. The plaintiff owned and operated a cleaning and repair business that provided services to local apartment complexes. Among the services the plaintiff’s business provided to the defendant, a management company of several apartment buildings in Atlanta was subfloor repairs. Several of the units at the apartment complex where the injury at issue in this lawsuit occurred are federally subsidized, and the plaintiff had been informed of a complaint sent to the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development regarding the condition of a particular unit. The plaintiff went to the building to inspect the problem and discovered a significant mold problem, as well as water damage to the floor in the bathroom. She gave the defendant an estimate of the cost to repair the problem, and the following day the plaintiff and her crew started work. Upon beginning work, the plaintiff realized the problem was more severe than originally predicted. After making a phone call to the property manager to discuss the severity of the problem, she leaned over to take photos of the area. Unfortunately, the joist on which the plaintiff was standing gave way, and she fell downstairs and onto a stove that was lit. The plaintiff sustained multiple injuries as a result of the fall, and she brought a claim against the property management company.

At the close of discovery, the defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing, inter alia, that as a contractor enlisted to correct the problem, she had equal knowledge of the hazard. The plaintiff opposed the motion, arguing that there were issues of material fact related to whether the defendant had a duty to warn her of the hazard posed by the floor joist support system. The trial court denied the motion for summary judgment. The Court of Appeals found this ruling to be in error and reversed. As noted above, Georgia law does not allow an invitee on the property of another to recover compensation for an injury caused by a hazard on the property if the evidence shows that the invitee had equal knowledge about the hazard. See Houston v. Wal-Mart Stores East, L. P., 324 Ga. App. 105, 107-10 (2013). Here, the Court of Appeals found that there was no dispute that the plaintiff had equal knowledge to the defendant regarding the risks posed by the hazard causing her injury. Indeed, the plaintiff had repaired the flooring in several apartments in the complex, three of which required new floor joist systems. Moreover, the plaintiff testified to having inspected this particular apartment the day before and seeing significant water damage, including moisture and water damage that seeped down to the kitchen below. She also testified that the joists were rusted, separated, and weathered. From this evidence, the Court of Appeals concluded that it was clear that the plaintiff had equal knowledge of the risks posed by the rotting floor.

In addition, the Court of Appeals noted particular rules that apply to those employed to correct issues on a property that also precluded the plaintiff’s recovery. First, when a worker “[i]s hired for the express purpose of assisting in the repair . . . of some instrumentality . . ., and the unsafe conditions from which the injury resulted arose from . . . the work undertaken,” he may not recover based on a property owner’s failure to keep the place in reasonably safe condition. Howell v. Farmers Peanut Market of Sowega, 212 Ga. App. 610, 611 (1994). Likewise, a worker may not recover when the work he is enlisted to perform “necessarily changes the character for the safety of the place in which it is performed as the work progresses.” Elsberry v. Ivey, 209 Ga. App. 620, 621 (1993).The plaintiff nonetheless argued that the defendant had superior knowledge, based on the deposition of the defendant’s asset manager, who testified that the defendant had received earlier complaints about tenants falling through the subfloors in apartments. However, the Court of Appeals concluded that neither this testimony nor any other evidence in the record provided enough detail about these prior incidents to show a similarity between the plaintiff’s case and the reasons for falls on previous occasions. Without a sufficient showing of similarity, it cannot be shown that these prior incidents gave the defendant superior knowledge as to the particular hazard that caused the plaintiff’s injury. In any event, since the plaintiff had equal knowledge about the particular hazard that occasioned her injury, the Court of Appeals reasoned she was precluded from recovery. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals determined the denial of summary judgment was in error and reversed.

As this case aptly demonstrates, not all premises liability cases are the same. Indeed, recovery depends not only on the circumstances of the accident but also on the identity of the person harmed and the knowledge he or she may have about the property. Although many believe premises liability cases are simple undertakings, the facts of any particular action can make obtaining recovery more demanding than anticipated. Accordingly, it behooves those injured as a result of possible negligence in the maintenance of a property—from an ordinary slip and fall to more complex situations—to consider finding experienced counsel before pursuing legal action. If you are in this situation, the Atlanta premises liability attorneys at Christopher Simon Attorney at Law are experienced in this area of the law, from the ordinary to the technical, and they are prepared to offer you the benefits of their knowledge. Feel free to contact us to arrange a free case consultation to discuss your possible case.