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Breach of Contract or Premises Liability?

People boarding busWhen initially pleading a case, attorneys will typically maintain a litigant’s injury is compensable under several distinct theories of liability. However, as the Georgia Court of Appeals recent decision in Demott v. Old Town Trolley Tours of Savannah, Inc. demonstrates, alternative pleading, although often efficacious, does not assure recovery.

The plaintiff in Demott was injured in Savannah on November 17, 2008. On that day, the plaintiff and several family members went to the Savannah Visitor Center in order to procure tickets and take the Savannah Old Town Trolley Tour. After parking and entering the Visitor Center to purchase tickets, the plaintiff walked across the parking lot to a kiosk to inquire about where she and her family should board the trolley. The kiosk attendant informed her that she and her family could board back at the entrance to the Visitor Center. While making her way back across the parking lot, the plaintiff tripped in a pothole and fell.

The plaintiff originally brought a premises liability suit on March 16, 2010 against the City of Savannah. However, after realizing that Old Town, not the City of Savannah, owned the parking lot, the plaintiff amended the complaint on November 16, 2011 to include a premises liability claim against Old Town. However, Old Town argued that this claim fell beyond the two-year statute of limitations period for personal injury actions, see O.C.G.A. § 9-3-33, and moved for summary judgment. In response, the plaintiff again amended the complaint to assert a breach of contract claim based on Old Town’s duty to its riders as a common carrier. While the trial court acknowledged that this is a distinct claim, the court found that the injury did not occur based on a breach of the contractual duty to safely carry and transport the plaintiff and granted the motion for summary judgment.

On appeal, the Georgia Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s determination. Georgia law has long recognized that “a ticket holder has a right of action for the breach of a contract of carriage.” Crites v. Delta Airlines, 177 Ga. App. 723, 725 (3) (341 SE2d 264) (1986); see O.C.G.A. § 46-9-132. However, the heart of the issue before the court was when the extraordinary care standard afforded by this contractual duty arises. With respect to this question, the Court noted that the heightened standard of care implicit to the carrier-passenger relationship typically commences at the moment the passenger is being received. Delta Air Lines v. Millirons, 87 Ga. App. 334, 341 (5) (73 SE2d 598) (1952). In this case, the plaintiff was neither abroad the trolley nor exiting or boarding the trolley when the injury occurred. Although injuries may be compensable based on a breach of carrier’s contractual duty when one is on a platform in front of a train waiting to receive passengers, see, e.g., Georgia R. & E. Co. v. Cole, 1 Ga. App. 33, 34 (57 SE 1026) (1907), the Court determined that the contractual relation does not exist when one is en route to the location where one is to be received by the carrier. Instead, liability for the plaintiff’s injury would be properly based on the general duty of landowners to maintain premises in a safe condition. Since the injury was beyond the scope of the contractual duty and the premises liability claims were barred by Georgia’s statute of limitations for personal injury actions, the court concluded that summary judgment was appropriate.

Given the majority’s parsimonious view of the facts, three judges dissented from the court’s opinion. The dissenting opinion argued that a question of material fact regarding the spot of the plaintiff’s fall in relation to where she was to board the trolley remained, which made a grant of summary judgment inappropriate. Since the location of the hole in relation to the point of passenger boarding is material to whether the common carrier’s heightened duty of care applied, it should have been resolved prior to granting summary judgment.

Although asserting an alternative theory of liability proved to be fruitless in this case, the dissenters’ perspective on the facts shows that broad pleading can be an efficacious tool. Ultimately, this plaintiff would have benefited from adequately researching ownership of the parking lot and properly asserting her premises liability action within the statute of limitations period. In light of the vast array of factual and legal issues that must be researched and resolved in even seemingly straightforward litigation, the aid of experienced counsel is important for anyone seeking recovery for his or her injuries. The Atlanta premises liability attorneys at the Law Office of Terrence R. Bethune have numerous years of experience handling premises liability and other personal injury suits and are ready to provide you with the legal assistance your case demands. If you have recently been injured and believe you may have a case, feel free to contact us for a free consultation.

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Court of Appeals Reverses Trial Court’s Refusal to Grant Summary Judgment in Premises Liability Case

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