Taking the “Premises” Out of Premises Liability?

On February 14th, the Supreme Court of Georgia heard oral argument in a lawsuit against Six Flags Over Georgia involving the violent beating of a man at a bus stop outside the theme park by a group of alleged gang members.  The Cobb County case, which resulted in the highest jury award in Georgia for 2013 at $35 million, is on appeal to the state’s highest court after being overturned by the Georgia Court of Appeals for the reason that the trial court failed to include additional assailants on the verdict form for the purposes of apportioning fault.  Notably, despite overturning a verdict that apportioned 92.2% of the award to Six Flags and the remainder to four of the man’s assailants, the Court of Appeals rejected Six Flags’ contention that the park should not be liable for an assault that did not occur on its premises. 

At oral argument, however, the Supreme Court asked counsel for both sides to address not only the apportionment of fault issue but also whether Six Flags could be liable for damages on a piece of property it did not own.  Under Georgia law, an owner or occupier of land must exercise ordinary care in keeping its premises and approaches safe.  According to counsel for Joshua Martin, the man who was beaten into a coma and left with permanent brain damage from the attack, the bus stop near the theme park constitutes an “approach” that must be maintained in a safe condition by Six Flags.  Martin’s counsel reasoned that if that is the way visitors come and go, it would follow that Six Flags has a duty to maintain the bus stop in a safe condition.    

On the other side of the argument, counsel for Six Flags asserted that liability does not extend beyond its physical premises and approaches.  Simply, Six Flags cannot be held responsible for off-property conditions.  Laurie Webb Daniel, arguing on behalf of Six Flags, stated that “[w]hat we have here is a plaintiff asking the court to take the premises out of premises liability.” 

In addition to the substantial amount of money at stake for Six Flags, the Supreme Court’s forthcoming decision in this case will significantly shape premises liability in Georgia.  If the Court elects to extend a landowner’s liability to include off-property liability, the responsibilities and legal risk associated with maintaining a commercial property in Georgia stand to be greatly affected.