Can a repairman hired as an independent contractor hold a property owner liable for injuries sustained on the property being repaired? Can his family recover wrongful death damages when those injuries are fatal? In a recent Georgia wrongful death decision, the court considered a situation in which the decedent had been changing a light bulb on 30-foot light pole at an apartment complex when the pole broke at the base, which resulted in him falling and experiencing fatal injuries. The minor children and the administratrix of the decedent’s estate filed a wrongful death lawsuit based on his fall and premises liability against the owner and manager of the apartment complex. Summary judgment was granted for the property owners. The plaintiffs appealed.
The case arose when the defendant owner bought the apartment complex and contracted with a property manager to manage it. The complex included both apartments and a recreational sports court that was lit by four light poles. The pole in question was around 30 feet tall and at the top of the four poles were crossbars that had light fixtures on the ends of them. Steel plates attached to the concrete pads were the site at which poles were bolted. On the other end of the poles they were touching soil that may have eroded away from the time the poles were installed.
The decedent had been helping out another man make repairs at the apartment complex for two years. The man the decedent was working with put together a proposal to replace four light bulbs and also included the cost of a rented forklift. The local businesses didn’t have a forklift available to rent, so when replacing the light bulbs, the man decided to connect part of one ladder to an extension ladder. Later on, the man was asked to put in a bid again, but reduced his price because the property management company didn’t want to pay for the forklift.
The following month, the decedent and his relative went to the apartment complex and connected two ladders as they previously had. The decedent climbed up and used a safety harness to secure himself to the pole. After he worked for about a minute, he asked if the post moved. The pole cracked at the base and fell to the ground, and the man was killed.
The plaintiffs retained a metallurgy expert who testified that there was paint blistering in the place where it failed and that if the pole had been checked properly by someone, its structural integrity would have been questioned. He was of the opinion that the light pole that broke hadn’t been appropriately maintained for a long time before it failed and that a properly trained maintenance supervisor would have recognized that the light pole required inspection and might need repair or maintenance at some point. A civil engineer also believed there was a failure to follow industry standards in failing to inspect, maintain or repair.
The court granted the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment on the grounds that there had been no evidence presented that the property owner had knowledge of the defect that was greater than that of the decedent who’d pushed the pole to determine whether it was strong before climbing the pole. Under OCGA § 9-11-56, a party moving for summary judgment has to show there’s no genuine issues of material fact.
The plaintiffs argued on appeal that the lower court had made a mistake in finding the defendants had met a landowner’s duties under OCGA § 51-3-1. They argued that the defendant who had a nondelegable duty to maintain the light pole hadn’t kept the property safe for invitees.
The appellate court agreed with the plaintiffs. It explained that under Georgia premises liability law, landowners or occupiers can be liable for damages experienced by an invitee on property where the invitee’s injuries are caused by the landowner or occupier’s failure to use ordinary care in keeping the premises safe.
An owner or occupier must use ordinary care to protect an invitee from unreasonable risks of harm of which the landowner or occupier has greater knowledge. The landowner or occupier must use ordinary care to keep the property reasonably safe and not expose an invitee to unreasonable dangers or traps. Constructive knowledge of the landowner can be inferred if there’s proof there was no reasonable inspection procedure in place. There is an exception for independent contractors that have actual knowledge of the danger. However, in this case, the decedent had been hired not to fix the pole but to change the light bulbs. There were issues for a jury about whether the decedent had superior knowledge of a possible risk, and therefore summary judgment wasn’t proper.
If you were injured by a dangerous condition on somebody else’s property, premises liability attorney Stephen M. Ozcomert may be able to help you. He has over 20 years of experience representing injured clients in Atlanta and throughout Georgia. 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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