Injured Plaintiff Loses Premise Liability Claim on Summary Judgment
Esposito v. Pharr Court Associates, L.P., 334 Ga. App. 434, 779 S.E.2d 675 (2015) is a premises liability case in which the Georgia courts prevented an injured plaintiff from presenting her case to a jury. On July 25, 2011, Barbara Esposito slipped and fell, injuring herself inside the premises of a nursing home operated by Pharr Court Associates, L.P. Ms. Esposito’s husband had resided at the nursing home for about a year and was scheduled to be discharged the next day.
Ms. Esposito came to the nursing home every day and spent seven or eight hours there. She always ate with her husband and helped him with his grooming and care.
Soon after she arrived that day, July 25, she went to the elevator to go upstairs. But before pushing the button, she remembered that her husband might be in physical therapy. So she stepped to the left to look through the doors of the physical therapy room.
As she did so, she stepped on something slippery. Barbara Esposito’s feet flew out from under her and up into the air. She came down on her right elbow. When she landed, she realized she had slipped and fallen on someone’s diarrhea.
Dynasty Gates, the nursing home receptionist, witnessed the fall and called for help immediately. Only when someone placed Ms. Esposito’s cup, which she had been carrying at the time of the fall, in the reception area did Ms. Gates smell the odor and realize there was something on the floor. Ms. Gates walked over to the elevator and only then did she see the puddle of diarrhea on the floor. She said it was camouflaged due to the color of the floor itself, which was brown and light tan in color.
One of Ms. Gates’ duties was to check the lobby area frequently to be sure it was kept clean. If there was any problem, she would clean it up herself, or put up yellow signs, or call others to clean up the mess.
Her desk was about 15 to 18 feet away from the puddle. When Dynasty Gates called for help, Taneka Johnson, the nursing home’s assistant administrator, came to help. Her office was 40 feet from the puddle, but she said she saw the puddle immediately when she came out of her office.
Barbara Esposito filed suit against the nursing home, alleging that they were negligent. The nursing home moved the trial court for summary judgment, which was granted.
The trial court determined that Ms. Esposito was a “licensee” on the premises on the date of her injury. Defendant Pharr Court’s duty to licensees was to avoid “knowingly” exposing them to perils, or “willfully or wantonly” cause them injury. Finding there was no evidence to indicate that Defendant knowingly exposed Plaintiff Esposito to the puddle of diarrhea, and no evidence to show that Defendant willfully or wantonly caused Plaintiff to slip on the puddle of diarrhea, the trial court granted summary judgment to Defendant.
Plaintiff appealed, contending that she was an “invitee” on the premises, not a licensee. If Plaintiff was an invitee, she must show that Defendant “had actual or constructive knowledge of the hazard,” and that she had no knowledge of the hazard.
Plaintiff claimed invitee status. Karen Joseph, Defendant’s Director of Nursing, testified that the nursing home staff was trained to regard visitors as their customers. She was also aware that Plaintiff worked extensively with her husband, thereby lightening the workload of the nursing home staff.
Having reviewed all of this information, the Court of Appeals stated, “[W]e find there was an issue of fact created as to Esposito’s status as licensee or invitee.”
Continuing its analysis, the Court of Appeals stated there was no evidence to suggest the nursing home had actual knowledge of the puddle of diarrhea before Plaintiff slipped and fell. The Court of Appeals looked for constructive knowledge which, it said, could be shown in either of two ways. One way was to show that an employee of Defendant was in the immediate vicinity of the hazardous condition before Plaintiff fell, and had the opportunity to remove the hazard but failed to do so. The other way was to show that the hazard had been on the floor for a sufficient length of time that Defendant should have discovered the hazard and removed it.
Examining the record before the trial court, the Court of Appeals determined that no employee of Defendant had been in the immediate vicinity of the puddle of diarrhea. Furthermore, no evidence showed that the puddle had been on the floor long enough that it should have been discovered.
The Georgia Court of Appeals decided that even if Plaintiff was an invitee rather than a licensee on the premises of Defendant, the nursing home was still entitled to summary judgment.
Plaintiff would not be able to present her case to a jury. The Georgia courts deprived another injured plaintiff of the opportunity to present her case to a jury.