ATLANTA (Legal Newsline) - The Georgia Supreme Court this week reversed a lower court's ruling in a lawsuit over an 83-year-old woman's death, saying that when she was attacked and killed by an eight-foot alligator in a residential community that she had "equal knowledge" of such a threat.
Last year, the state Court of Appeals held that a trial court properly denied in part motions for summary judgment brought by The Landings Association Inc. and The Landings Club Inc.
The appeals court found that a question of fact remained as to whether The Landings failed, pursuant to the law of premises liability, to take "reasonable steps" to protect Gwyneth Williams from being attacked and killed.
The state's high court granted review of the case to determine whether the Court of Appeals erred in reaching its decision.
"In this case, testimony shows that Williams was aware that wild alligators were present around The Landings and in the lagoons. Therefore, she had knowledge equal to The Landings entities about the presence of alligators in the community," Justice Harold D. Melton wrote for the majority.
Williams was housesitting for her daughter and son-in-law, who lived at The Landings, a planned residential development with a golf course on Skidaway Island off the Georgia coast.
Before The Landings was developed, the land within and surrounding its boundaries was largely marsh, where indigenous alligators lived and thrived.
To develop the property, The Landings entities installed a lagoon system that allowed enough drainage to create an area suitable for a residential development.
After the project was finished in the 1970s, the indigenous alligators began to move in and out of The Landings through its lagoon systems.
No one had ever been attacked by the animals until Oct. 5, 2007, the night Williams was attacked and killed.
Williams went for a walk near one of the lagoons by her daughter's home sometime after 6 p.m.
The next morning, her body was found floating in the lagoon. Her right foot and both forearms were bitten off.
Later, an eight-foot alligator was caught in the same lagoon and, after it was killed, parts of Williams' body were found in its stomach.
The record shows that before her death Williams told her son-in-law that she wouldn't want to be anywhere near the animals, knowing they were wild and very dangerous.
"Nonetheless, Williams chose to go for a walk at night near a lagoon in a community in which she knew wild alligators were present. This act undisputably shows that Williams either knowingly assumed the risks of walking in areas inhabited by wild alligators or failed to exercise ordinary care by doing so," Melton wrote.
"Under these circumstances, the trial court should have granted the motions for summary judgment brought by the Landings entities regarding Williams' premises liability claims."
The appeals court tried to avoid the conclusion by arguing that summary judgment for The Landings is precluded because there is no "competent evidence" that Williams knew there were alligators of that size living in the community, the majority explained.
"While there is no doubt that Williams' death was a tragic event, Williams was not incompetent," Melton noted in the six-page ruling.
"A reasonable adult who is not disabled understands that small alligators have large parents and are capable of moving from one lagoon to another, and such an adult, therefore, assumes the risk of an alligator attack when, knowing that wild alligators are present in a community, walks near a lagoon in that community after dark."
Justice Robert Benham, along with Chief Justice George H. Carley and Presiding Justice Carol A. Hunstein, dissented.
They said the Court of Appeals was correct in affirming the trial court's denial of summary judgment to The Landings because the evidence was "not plain, palpable and undisputed."
"Notably absent from the majority's opinion are facts which, if construed in appellees' favor, require the denial of appellants' motions for summary judgment," Benham wrote.
Among his examples: the Landings had an advertised policy that it removed from the 151 lagoons in the community alligators that were seven feet long or larger and/or alligators that were aggressive towards humans or pets.
"Based on the facts presented at the time of summary judgment in this case, reasonable minds could differ as to the essential elements of appellees' premises liability claim," Benham wrote.
"Indeed, there are very specific questions in this case that must go to a jury: whether decedent knew that large and aggressive alligators were living on the premises and in the lagoon in which her body was discovered; and whether appellants exercised reasonable care in inspecting and keeping the premises safe from alligators -- in particular, alligators that were over seven feet long and alligators that were aggressive toward humans and pets as per appellants' removal policy."
Benham wrote in his four-page dissent that he would allow the premises liability claim to be tried before a jury.
From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at email@example.com.