Drucker v. Morgan

Drucker v. Morgan

GA Court of Appeals, 3/27/24

No. A24A0593, 2024 WL 1297447

Chief Judge Mercier

Topics: Causation; Premises Liability; Summary Judgment

Quick Take: An AirBnb was not entitled to summary judgment for liability for a falling limb that injured a guest at the property just because the accident happened slightly off of the AirBnb’s property. The guest was injured while standing where the AirBnb told her to park, which was abandoned and unowned property next to the B&B that was decorated by the B&B and had a section marked off for parking. The limb was dead for years, and the decay was obvious to the naked eye. OCGA § 51-3-1 requires property owners to exercise ordinary care in keeping the property safe, and also keeping the “approaches to the property” safe (at least to invitees). A jury could find that this area was an “approach” to the property.

The fact that the Plaintiff’s husband lightly tugged on a vine, which was the last straw bringing the huge limb down did not justify summary judgment. An injury can have more than one cause. A healthy limb would not have fallen from a simple tug. The case must go to the jury.

Full Take: Ceileth Drucker sued Jonathan H. Morgan, 219 Battery Circle, LLC, and Starland Property Management, LLC, for injuries she sustained while staying at a short-term rental home in Savannah, Georgia.

Drucker booked a room for her family through Airbnb for a two-night stay in Savannah, Georgia. The booking information told Drucker that the portion of the driveway past the front door was not safe because there were exposed tree roots. They parked in the proper spot. They noted a large vine hanging down from a tree near their car.

It turns out that the strip of property described as the “driveway near the front door” was unclaimed land. Defendant Morgan thought it was county land, but the county confirmed that it did not own the strip of land, and no one had paid taxes on it in decades. This is the strip of land upon which the husband was injured.

The following morning, Drucker asked her husband to pose for a picture with the vine. He placed his hand on the vine and gave it “a light tug” to see if it was sturdy. At that point, a limb overhanging the parking area fell down and struck Drucker (the wife), causing significant injuries.

Plaintiffs sued for premises liability and for nuisance. They had an expert who opined that the 11’ limb had been dead for years, that its decay was readily observable to the naked eyes, and that it had been dropping larger and larger parts on the parking area due to the decay.

The defendants moved for summary judgment, which is appropriate when no genuine issues of material fact remain and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The trial court granted summary judgment to all defendants, finding that because Defendants did not own the land, there could be no premises liability. Also, the trial court held that because the husband pulled on the vine, that was an intervening and superseding action that caused his wife’s injuries.

On appeal, the court construes the evidence and all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmovant. The court found that the trial court erred on the question of whether lack of ownership of the strip of land barred a finding of premises liability.

Pursuant to OCGA § 51-3-1: “Where an owner or occupier of land, by express or implied invitation, induces or leads others to come upon his premises for any lawful purpose, he is liable in damages to such persons for injuries caused by his failure to exercise ordinary care in keeping the premises and approaches safe.” In other words, a landowner must use due care in keeping two distinct areas — the premises and approaches to the property — safe for invitees.

An “approach” was defined by the Supreme Court of Georgia. It basically means the adjacent property used for entering and exiting the property, and what constitutes an “approach” is a question of fact. This was the area described by the owner as “the driveway near the front door,” where the guest was welcome to park. The owner had decorated the area and placed old logs to block off and define the parking area. Drucker was in the designated area when the limb fell on her. Whether this is an “approach” is to be left to the jury (but the opinion strongly hints that it is).

As for whether the husband tugging on the vine was a superseding cause, proximate cause is usually a jury question. Two separate events acting concurrently can proximately cause an injury. Even if the husband was negligent in tugging on the vine, the record contains evidence that the branch, which was not attached directly to the vine, would not have fallen had it been healthy. A reasonable jury could find that, given the obvious decay of the branch, the property owner should have foreseen that an outside force acting on the tree might cause the branch to fall and strike a person in the parking area below. AFFIRMED IN PART, REVERSED IN PART, REMANDED for further proceedings.

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