No Summary Judgment When Defendant Can be Construed to Have "Set The Stage" for The Injury

The Court of Appeals recently reversed a trial court’s ruling granting summary judgment on the grounds that a question of material fact existed where defendant-church may have “set the stage” for the accident. In Henderson v. St. Paul Baptist Church, 328 Ga. App 123 (2014), Plaintiff, a visitor of St. Paul Baptist Church fell into a hole while walking from her car to the Church and suffered a fractured leg. Despite Plaintiff’s knowledge that cars were typically parked across the street (though there was no designated parking lot), she and her husband parked beside the Church property: The Church’s pastor motioned for them to park there, behind his own vehicle. In walking towards the church building, Plaintiff chose to take a shortcut and enter through the side entrance. The ground between her car and the entrance was completely covered with pine straw, covering the hole in which she fell.

The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the Church based on the voluntary departure rule, i.e., the guest deviated from the designated route to the front of the Church and therefore, did not exercise ordinary care for her own safety. However, the appellate court reversed, holding: 1) The pastor who invited them to park behind his own car knew of the hole covered by pine straw but nevertheless, invited them to park there, and 2) The entire area between Plaintiff’s car and the side entrance to the Church was covered by pine straw, leaving her with no other choice but to walk on it. More specifically, the appellate court pointed out that the Plaintiff had satisfied her burden of proving that the Church had actual knowledge of the hole, and thus, the burden shifted to the Church to show that the injury was caused by the Plaintiff’s own negligence. The Church presented evidence that Plaintiff took a shortcut rather than the prescribed route to the front of the building, shifting the burden back to Plaintiff to raise a question as to whether her negligence resulted from the Defendant’s actions.

The Court of Appeals concluded that the pastor’s invitation to Plaintiff and her husband to park closest to the side entrance of the building with knowledge of the hole, as well as the fact that the entire area was covered in pine straw, raised a sufficient question of fact to defeat summary judgment. Analogizing to a case in which a hotel guest suffered injury after walking down uneven steps from a side entrance with a sign that was not illuminated properly, the Court concluded that there may be some evidence that the Church “set the stage” for this accident.

The take-away: property owners should be aware that even when there is evidence of plaintiff’s own negligence, such as deviation from a prescribed path, defendants may still need to prove that they did not set the stage, i.e., in some way entice the guest to the hazard.