Georgia Court of Appeals Holds That Jury Should Have Been Permitted to Apportion Fault to Adjoining Property Owner in Negligent Security Case.

In Double View Ventures v. Polite, 2104 Ga. App. LEXIS 234 (3/26/14) the defendants, the owner of an apartment complex and a property management company, appealed a jury verdict in favor of plaintiff, a resident of the apartment complex. The resident filed a premises liability action against defendants following an attack by unknown assailants on the property of the apartment complex. The attack occurred while the resident was walking along a dirt path leading to a gas station located adjacent to the apartment complex. Bleach was thrown in the resident’s face and he was shot, which caused him severe permanent physical injuries.

On appeal, defendants contended that the trial court erred in refusing to allow the jury to consider the fault of the gas station and to apportion damages to it as well as among the defendants, pursuant to O.C.G.A. § 51-12-33. The Court of Appeals agreed and held that because there was some evidence supporting the defendants’ claims that the gas station may have been liable for the resident’s injuries and could be apportioned fault, the trial court erred in refusing to allow the jury to consider whether the gas station was partially at fault. The court noted that defendants presented evidence of numerous armed robberies and assaults on the gas station property, including inside the convenience store, as well as evidence that the area surrounding the gas station and the apartment complex was known as a high-crime area.  According to the Court, the fence near where the plaintiff was attacked was on property owned by the gas station, not by the apartment complex:

“Polite testified that he was attacked after he walked through the fence and took a few steps, and the evidence shows that the wooden fence is on Chevron’s property about 12 feet away from the Defendants’ property line. Given this evidence, along with the fact that it is unknown whether the attackers came from the Chevron station or the apartment complex, a jury question exists as to whether the Chevron station should have anticipated another criminal attack near the wooden fence and whether Chevron took reasonable precautions to protect Polite from the use of its premises.”

The court reversed the judgment, although the defendants never identified the specific entity in control of the Chevron station next door where the fence was located, and had in fact identified three other specific entities alleged to have been at fault in their pretrial notices of nonparty fault pursuant to O.C.G.A. § 51-12-33(d)(1).  The defendants pulled a classic bait and switch on the plaintiff.  They identified three specific entities in three separate notices, but presented no evidence that any one of them was actually responsible for the property where the fence was located.  According to plaintiff’s counsel, Darren Summerville, the trial court excluded the three specific entities named in the notices of nonparty fault from the verdict form, but the defendants argued that the jury should have been permitted to apportion fault to a vague, non-specific entity never named in the pretrial notices, such as “the convenience store” or “Chevron.”  The trial court refused, and got reversed by the Court of Appeals.

This is horrible decision, and the case is likely headed for the Georgia Supreme Court.  There was a strong dissent by Judge Anne Barnes, who correctly saw the issue as a failure of the defendants to introduce any evidence that would provide a rational basis for a jury to apportion fault against a nonparty.

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