How “Open and Obvious” Begets “Plain and Palpable”: Appeals Court Rules for State University in Premises Suit

Written by: Jacquelyn S. Clarke, Esq. and Michael V. Profit, Esq.

“Plain, palpable, and undisputed”: that phrase’s appearance in both briefs to the court supporting or opposing, or court orders on, motions for summary judgment underscores the challenge faced by the moving party. Without a settled factual basis, supported by law, summary judgment cannot be granted. Premises liability cases by their very nature are challenging on summary judgment because they are inherently riddled with factual nuances.

Nevertheless, in a recent opinion handed down in a premises liability suit, the Georgia Court of Appeals determined that the trial court erred in denying appellants Valdosta State University and the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia’s motion for summary judgment, and that as a matter of law, defendants were entitled to judgment in their favor.

The case, Valdosta State University v. Davis, no. A20A1036, 2020 WL 4745074 (Aug. 17, 2020 Ga. Ct. App.), originated after a Valdosta State University (“VSU”) freshman fell from her lofted bed and suffered serious injuries, which required surgery and a visit to the intensive care unit. The student, plaintiff Elizabeth Davis, resided in an on-campus dormitory, in which she slept on a lofted bed with no hand- or guardrails on its sides.

In October 2016, Davis returned to her dorm from a fraternity party, after which she fell asleep in her bed. After an indeterminate amount of time, she was awoken on the floor of her room by her roommate, having purportedly fallen out of her bed and onto her back. Due to her injuries, Davis withdrew from school, both in the fall semester and subsequently, that spring.

Suit was brought approximately fourteen months after Davis’s accident, which asserted against VSU a claim for negligence, due to the school’s failure to install railing on her bed. In support of her claim, and to adhere to the “actual or constructive knowledge” element of premises liability cases, Davis referenced incidents of similar injuries at other schools within the University System of Georgia. The trial court agreed with Davis, and in what the court of appeals described as a “cursory” order, denied VSU’s motion for summary judgment. An interlocutory appeal followed.

Set forth by the Davis court is the oft-cited burden of proof standard required of all premises liability plaintiffs; namely, that they prove that 1) the owner or proprietor had actual or constructive knowledge of the hazard, and 2) the plaintiff lacked knowledge of the hazard, despite exercising ordinary care. Here, the court of appeals determined that, though element one was met, the evidence demonstrating Davis’s knowledge of the hazard was “plain, palpable, and undisputed,” which favored VSU.

Relying on the superior-or-equal-knowledge rule established in O’Steen v. Rheem Manufacturing Co., 194 Ga. App. 240, 242 (1990), the court of appeals set forth the principle that, where by ordinary care the plaintiff could have avoided the consequences of the defendant’s negligence, the plaintiff cannot recover damages. In O’Steen, the court of appeals found that an employer was not negligent, and granted judgment notwithstanding the verdict for an employee’s car accident at a blind intersection on a road that traversed the employer’s parking lot.

The superior-or-equal-knowledge concept required consideration of the “open and obvious” nature of Davis’s lofted, unguarded bed, which the court found was plainly apparent to Davis. According to the court, that Davis for three months slept without incident in her bed—which to access required her to “step on her desk and then climb into her bed because there was no ladder in the room”—demonstrated a clear understanding and appreciation of the danger posed. Moreover, the court determined that Davis’s familiarity with this hazard imputed on her the knowledge that such danger could be avoided “by the exercise of reasonable care.”

Because Davis’s unguarded lofted bed was an “open and obvious” hazard about which she had knowledge, the court determined that the issue of VSU’s negligence plainly, palpably, and indisputably could as a matter of law be resolved, thereby barring her recovery. Thus, though ostensible hazards such as unguarded lofted beds may be well-known to state-run universities, such as Valdosta State, the Georgia Court of Appeals determined that, because this plaintiff made her bed, she had to lie in it, too.