Legal Alert: Georgia Supreme Court Rules Property Owner is Liable for Off-Premise Injuries
On June 5, 2017, the Georgia Supreme Court held that a property owner may be liable for injuries sustained from a third-party attack, even if that attack occurs outside of an owner’s property. In Martin v. Six Flags Over Georgia II, L.P., et al., 2017 WL 2414685 (Ga. June 5, 2017), the Court held that Six Flags was responsible for the injuries to a man who was brutally beaten at a bus-stop adjacent to Six Flags’ property, finding that the injuries were foreseeable to Six Flags based on the circumstances leading up to the attack. This decision reaffirmed already existing Georgia law holding that a property owner cannot escape liability when a foreseeable criminal attack begins on an owner’s premises and continues off the premises.
In Martin, Joshua Martin was left severely brain damaged after he was attacked by gang members at a bus-stop outside of Six Flags Over Georgia as he attempted to leave the park. At trial, the jury awarded the man $35 million and apportioned the fault between the parties, assigning 92 percent against Six Flags and 2 percent each against the four assailants. On review, the Georgia Supreme Court found that, although the actual injuries were incurred off of the park’s premises, the man’s injuries “were the culmination of a continuous string of events” that were planned and took place, at least in part, on Six Flags’ premises.
The trial record showed that on the day of the attack, a group of 15 to 40 gang members, some of whom were employed by Six Flags, were observed running through the park yelling obscenities and otherwise causing commotion. In the early evening, two men who were visiting the park with their families were accosted by the group after one of its members nearly knocked over one of the men’s young son. When the man admonished the gang member, several gang members surrounded and threatened him for five to ten minutes until park security appeared, at which point they threatened to later attack him in the parking lot outside of the park. The man reported this threat to park security, and though security reprimanded the gang members they were able to locate, they released them back into the park. This was in violation of Six Flags’ policy pursuant to which the men should have been ejected.
Shortly before closing, the two men and their families were prepared to exit the park through its main gates when they noticed the same group of gang members, whose numbers had grown to approximately 40, running to the front gate in what one witness described as a “frenzy.” The group exited the park, followed by security guards, who stood outside watching. Once the guards reentered the property, the families exited the gates, believing the gang members had left. However, when the families were walking toward the parking lot, the gang members spotted them and began following and yelling at them. The families hurried to their cars and were able to leave without further incident.
The gang members then returned to the area outside of the park’s main gate where Martin and two of his companions were sitting on a railway. After hearing the gang members say that someone “was going to get messed up,” Martin and his companions got up from the railway and walked to a nearby bus-stop. The group of gang members followed them to the bus-stop, at which point, without provocation or delay, one gang member began beating Martin with brass knuckles. One witness testified that as many as nine people participated in the beating.
Provided with these facts, the Supreme Court held that Six Flags breached its duty to keep its premises reasonably safe. The Court further held that the attack was foreseeable to Six Flags, both in the abstract and on the night in question, because Martin’s injuries “were the culmination of a continuous string of events that were planned on Six Flags’ property, were executed at least in part on Six Flags’ property, and were the result of a failure by Six Flags to exercise ordinary care to protect its invitee from unreasonable risks that Six Flags understood, and even tried to obscure from its patrons.” The Court further stated, “[t]his case stands for the common sense proposition that a property owner does not escape liability for an attack that begins on its premises simply because the victim moves outside the premises before the attack is completed.”
Next, the Court rejected the Court of Appeals’ holding that the bus-stop was a part of Six Flags’ premises, finding that Six Flags did not exercise the positive dominion and control over the public bus-stop to place it within Six Flags’ premises and approaches. In doing so, the Court held that though Six Flags undertook certain measures to control traffic, perform landscaping, pick up trash, and erect signage on the public roadway leading to the public bus-stop, these measures fell short of the level and control and dominion required to subsume the public road within Six Flags’ approaches. The Court also cited to the fact that Six Flags’ security officers had no authority to intervene in security incidents they witnessed occurring at the bus-stop and could only call the police. The Court also relied on the fact that the bus stop was not contiguous with, adjacent to, or touching Six Flags’ property in any way.
Lastly, the Court held that a reversal and full retrial was not necessary to correct the trial court’s apportionment error. The Court held that liability and damages did not need to be retried and held that the trial court can simply retry the apportionment portion of the case on remand.