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Georgia Court Considers Acceptance Doctrine

In Georgia vehicle accident cases, determining liability can often be very complicated. First there are questions of driver negligence, driving under the influence or falling asleep at the wheel. Next there are product liability questions – did a car part fail or did some key mechanism not do what it was supposed to? Third, there are environmental factors. Perhaps roads were not properly marked or signs weren’t obvious, making it more likely that an accident would occur. All of these types of issues can create complicated questions of liability and require plaintiffs to bring lawsuits against many different parties. This is illustrated by a recent case before the Georgia Court of Appeals looking at the liability of the Georgia Department of Transportation versus independent road contractors.

In Stopanio v. Leon Fence, LLC, A.S. brought claims against the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) and independent construction contractors who performed work at the site of an accident. At the time of the accident, A.S. was driving to Florida with her parents. Her parents were in a car immediately in front of hers when a vehicle driving in the opposite direction drifted across the center lane and struck her parent’s SUV. This caused the airbags to deploy. The car swerved left, hit a guardrail and then bounced into a concrete pileway. The SUV exploded into fire and A.S.’s parents were killed instantly. A.S. was also injured when trying to respond to the accident. A.S. brought claims against both defendants as personal representative of her parent’s estate: a wrongful death and personal injury claim.

The independent contractors who had done road construction on the area where the accident occurred filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that GDOT had accepted their construction work prior to the accident and taken over control of the area. Accordingly, they were no longer liable for any injury that might result from the condition of the road. The lower court agreed and granted the motion to dismiss. A.S. appealed.

On appeal, A.S. disputed when GDOT had truly “accepted” the work of the independent contractors and argued that their negligence was so inherently dangerous that the acceptance doctrine should not apply. Under the acceptance doctrine, when the work of an independent contractor is completed, turned over to the owner and subsequently accepted by the owner, the contractor is no longer liable to third parties for any damages or injuries that result. However, there is an exception to the acceptance doctrine when the work is inherently or intrinsically dangerous. In that case, the contractor may still be held liable.

Here, A.S. argued that although GDOT and the independent contractor began the process of accepting the work prior to her parent’s accident, the acceptance was not actually finalized until after the accident. Thus, the contractor was still responsible. A.S. also argued that the work was so inherently dangerous that the acceptance doctrine should not apply, even if acceptance was timely. The appeals court disagreed on both counts. First, it found that GDOT had formally accepted the contractor’s work and taken over responsibility for the road prior to A.S.’s parents’ accident. Furthermore, even if that acceptance was not formalized until after the accident, the reality was that the contractor was no longer liable. Second, the appeals court found that A.S. could not provide any evidence to show that the work done by the contractor was inherently dangerous. While A.S. alleged flaws in the work, she did not allege anything amounting to a truly inherently dangerous issue. Accordingly, the appeals court upheld the the lower court’s finding on this issue (although they reversed for other reasons).

If you are considering a lawsuit against multiple defendants in a personal injury or wrongful death case, you should speak with an attorney to evaluate your potential claims. Stephen M. Ozcomert has more than 20 years of experience representing clients who have been injured in car accidents in Atlanta and throughout Georgia, and he can help you decide which defendants to pursue. Call us today at (404) 370-1000 to schedule a free initial consultation, or you can reach us through our website.

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