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Landlord Liability for Tenant Social Guests—Big News in Georgia Premises Liability Law—particularly for defense practitioners

Written by: Jeffery Randolph Saxby, Esq.

On March 15, 2021, the Georgia Supreme Court issued a split decision (6-3) which upheld the giving of a licensee status jury charge (owed a lesser duty to avoid causing willful or wanton injury) with respect to an individual who was argued to be either a social guest of a tenant or an unauthorized tenant in the case of Cham et al. v. ECI Management Corporation et al. (S20G0601).

One of the more important aspects of the Supreme Court’s decision is that it removes some confusion with respect to landlord/tenant premises liability law, and explains the distinction between OCGA § 51-3-1 et seq. (which imposes liability upon an owner or occupier of land for failure to exercise ordinary care in keeping the premises and approaches safe) and OCGA § 44-7-14 (which exposes landlords to liability for damages arising from defective construction or from the failure to keep the premises in repair), and reinforced that purported liability under the statutes are mutually exclusive. As the Supreme Court explains, in a landlord/tenant premises liability case an entity/person can be faced with OCGA § 51-3-1 liability as an owner or occupier of premises or OCGA § 44-7-14 liability as a landlord. However, this potential liability is dependent upon where (e.g., in a common area versus inside a tenant controlled area) the alleged injury occurs. Thus, the Supreme Court’s decision disapproves any prior decision which does not adhere to this required location analysis, serves to correct the “sometimes-misguided decisional law in this area,” and eliminates future efforts to conflate the duties owed to a particular Plaintiff by melding the relevant statutes.

The second important aspect of the Supreme Court’s decision addresses the potential legal status applicable to purported “social guests” of a tenant. Traditionally, Plaintiffs have argued and the Georgia Court of Appeals has held that a tenant’s family and social guests generally “stand-in-the-shoes” of the tenant (i.e., they are deemed an invitee) and a landlord owes a tenant’s family and social guests a duty of ordinary care in taking reasonable precautions to protect them from foreseeable dangers. The Supreme Court’s decision appropriately clarifies that the stand-in-the-shoes doctrine potentially applies to claims arising under OCGA 44-7-17 (i.e., failure to keep the premises in repair) but not claims arising under OCGA § 51-3-1 (i.e., failure to exercise ordinary care in keeping the premises and approaches safe).

The Supreme Court decision shows that for alleged landlord liability claims arising under OCGA 51-3-1, it is not a visitor’s relationship with a tenant which determines the visitor’s legal status but in fact the visitor’s relationship with the landlord which determines the legal duty owed by the landlord. Thus, a visitor can be a invitee of a tenant but not be deemed an invitee of the landlord depending on the specific facts of each case. The Supreme Court’s decision makes clear that although a social guest of a tenant may be deemed an invitee of a landlord with respect to using common areas as a means of ordinary ingress and egress, a social guest can exceed the scope of any express/implied invitation by a landlord when he or she continually or permanently resides with the tenant. Should the facts show that a purported social guest of a tenant injured in a common area is in fact an unauthorized tenant, the jury may consider whether the injured individual is merely a licensee as to the landlord and owed a lesser duty to not “willfully or wantonly cause injury.”