State Supreme Court Upholds GA Tort Reform

The Georgia State Supreme Court has released an opinion upholding a major component of Georgia’s 2005 tort reform law.  The ruling deals with the jury’s ability to determine who is responsible for damages (and by what percentage) when there are multiple defendents.

From the AJC’s Bill Rankin:

The court issued its opinion in a case brought by a man who was attacked, abducted and robbed by unknown assailants in August 2009 at a Red Roof Inns hotel in Atlanta. Nairobi Couch, the victim, had sued the hotel’s owners for failing to keep their premises safe and provide adequate security.

By a 5-2 vote, the state Supreme Court said that a jury, when deciding on an award of damages to Couch, can consider the fault of Couch’s assailants and apportion the amount of the damages based on the percentage of all those responsible for the attack. The court also said a jury can receive a special verdict form requiring it to decide how much the hotel and the assailants should pay, should the jury find them liable.

Lawsuits for damages will now be about who is at fault, not who nearby has the deepest pockets.  At least in theory.

22 comments

  1. James says:

    Yes! Another win for Georgia’s 2005 Tort Reform Act! Now when can we expect to see the reduced malpractice and CGL insurance premiums that were the promised result of tort reform?

    • Charlie says:

      Based on the substance of this specific case, I doubt you’ll see any difference in medical insurance claims as the lawsuids for med malpractice generally don’t target an array of folks who just happened to be in proximity of the claim.

      What it will help with are cases like this of a Red Roof Inn, where someone decided to committ a crime and because those who did so were poor, the hotel somehow became the deep pocket to make the victim whole.

      • DTK says:

        @Charlie

        Premises owners, such as Red Roof Inn, generally are not liable for the damages caused to their invitees when these damages are caused by third-party criminals. However, if it can be factually proven that it was foreseeable to the premises owner that its customers were in danger of being hurt by criminals, then the premises owner has a duty to protect its customers. This usually is shown through the hiring of security guards, locks on doors, a well-lit parking lot, etc.

        Yes, the most direct party causing the harm to the invitee is the criminal. However, in some situations the premises owner can harm the invitee when it negligently fails to protect the invitee when it knew or should of known of the criminal danger its invitee faced simply because of the invitee’s presence on the premises.

        In other words, when the property owner can foresee future harm to its customers based on similar harm done to customers in the past, then the property owner has a duty to protect its current customers from this same type of harm. Failure to protect them may leave the property owner liable for the damages done directly by a criminal to its customer. I don’t see anything wrong with this.

        And, yes, these types of premises liability cases are a result of looking for “deep pockets” to compensate the victim. But that’s by design. Tort law has never been concerned with justice against the wrongdoer or retribution or anything like that. Tort law is only concerned with compensating victims for their damages. That’s what joint and several liability is all about, and it’s quite ironic that so-called conservatives are the first ones to want to abrogate this ancient common law doctrine that has been developed and tested over centuries.

        • seenbetrdayz says:

          Eh.

          How could you prove that the property owner forsaw it, though? Suppose the plantiff comes in with all this data about crime rates in the area, wouldn’t that mean that the plantiff himself could have forseen it? And if that’s the case, he’s more to blame than the property owner because he chose to put himself at the location (lol?).

          • DTK says:

            @seenbetrdayz

            A plaintiff would use actual instances of similar crimes on the same premises to show that the property owner should have foreseen this particular crime and put in place measures that would have helped stop it.

            I’ll give you an illustration. Suppose an old hotel had rooms that had old door locks on them, with no deadbolts or sliding chain locks on any of its room doors. Suppose the same old hotel had five different break-ins in the past 12 months where the criminals forcibly pushed open the hotel doors and either burglarized the room or robbed the customers. Suppose the plaintiff had expert testimony from a hotel expert that said the industry standard was to have more than a simple door lock on a hotel door, that deadbolts or chain locks in addition to the door lock were the industry standard. Suppose the expert said these extra locks are put in place precisely to keep burglars/robbers from pushing open the doors. Suppose the expert said these types of break-ins are a common occurrence at hotels. Suppose that a current customer is lying in his bed one night when a criminal pushes open his door, the criminal tries to rob him, and the criminal shoots the customer during the process of the robbery.

            Now, we can all agree that the criminal is the main culprit here. He invaded the customer’s room and injured him. But the hotel owes a duty to its customers to keep them safe from known dangers. That’s the law and it’s been the law for longer than any of us have been alive. And when the customer sues, he’s going to argue that the hotel knew of these types of break-ins on its premises and could have helped prevent them by installing more and different kinds of locks. The customer will argue that if the hotel had done so, the customer never would’ve been hurt.

            Most people get upset about these types of cases because they think there can only be one person at “fault” and since the criminal is obviously that one person, then everyone else is blameless. But the law doesn’t work that way, especially tort law. As I noted above, the common law was most interested in compensating victims of negligence. If that means the victim is compensated fully by a hotel in this instance, while the criminal doesn’t pay a cent (because he’s judgment-proof) then so be it. That’s what joint and several liability is about. Unfortunately, the modern view that many conservatives take absolves the hotel of any responsibility and places the entire blame on the criminal. What this means is that the customer will be shot, he won’t sue because the criminal has no money, some hotels will cut back on safety measures because there isn’t any market preference on the lower-end for these types of measures, and the customer may end up having the taxpayers pay his medical bills if he doesn’t have his own insurance since the hotel no longer faces liability for its negligence. And this is “responsible” reform of our tort laws? No, it’s rent-seeking by companies that don’t want to pay for routine safety measures or pay for the consequences of their own negligence. That’s all there is to it.

            • seenbetrdayz says:

              Yeah but what I’m saying is that if the plantiff can show that there were x-number of break-ins, then doesn’t he (the victim) share the responsibility of knowing that there was potential for a problem?

              I just don’t know if it should be so easy to put blame on as many people as possible. Lawyers are rapidly turning our system into a game of ‘everyone’s at fault but the victim’ and frankly, I’m not sure that this is as old an idea as you suggest. Seems to be a trend over the recent decades of the “I’ll sue anyone with a name” culture.

              I’ll agree that the criminal is to blame and they won’t get any money by going after him (or her), but where is the justice in going after someone else for the actions of a criminal?

              It seems to me that folks are getting carried away with lawsuits these days. I don’t know where they draw the line, and letting a jury decide might be the best thing we can do with so much ‘gray area.’ Suppose if I’m a business owner and a pedestrian gets hit by a car in my parking lot, should I have put up 4 crosswalks instead of two? Did I need stop signs and speed bumps every ten feet? What exactly is ‘reasonable’ when considering liability? There’s no definite answer to such questions, and in the eyes of a victim, there’s always the view that ‘someone else could have done just one more thing and this wouldn’t have happened.’ I’m not attacking the victim (no pun intended?), just stating that it seems to be human nature these days, and we can’t let compassion for the victim cloud the view of what is rational and just.

              I have to go with the Supreme Court here. Letting a jury of peers deliberate and come to some sort of proportional assignment of blame is probably the best we can do.

              • So let me get this straight.

                Let’s take an extreme example that shows why the law/Supreme Court decision is bad. Say a carmaker sells you a car that they know with a high level of certainty will kill you if you get hit by someone driving the wrong way on the interstate.

                A drunk driver enters the interstate going the wrong way and hits/kills you. With a minor modification to the car, you’d be multiple times more likely to survive this crash.

                This crash obviously wouldn’t have happened without the drunk driver’s involvement – and so the carmaker should have some percentage of liability reduced because of this?

                As to your argument, as a consumer you have some reasonable expectation of safety when you transact in business – such as crossing the parking lot safely without being hit or killed. I think most juries would not find you liable if you put up 2 crosswalks and that was truly safe. But if you had repeated incidents where it could be demonstrated that a third or fourth crosswalk would decrease the likelihood of an accident, then I think you should be liable for tort damages even if you’re not the driver.

                • seenbetrdayz says:

                  You’re making my point.

                  How far do you take it? There’s no dividing line. It’s purely subjective. There’s no ‘exact.’ A deadbolt and a lock might be good enough to the owner of the hotel. But the victim says that there should have been a deadbolt, a lock, and a chain-lock.

                  What is ‘extreme’ is purely subjective, not objective.

                  • seenbetrdayz says:

                    Lastly, this doesn’t mean that hotel owners will never be held liable, so I don’t really understand the outcry against this decisions. It just places responsibility of assigning liability in the hands of the jury. Who is to say that the jury won’t find the hotel 99% liable and the criminal 1%? For all we know, it could happen. It is at least better, to let the decision be made by a group of jurors than a sole decider.

                    None of what I’m saying should be construed as telling people that they don’t have the right to sue. People do have that right, and I wouldn’t support tort reform that blocks lawsuits. But what irks some folks is that they think the right to sue automatically means they have the ‘right to win’, or to get everything out of the lawsuit they feel they deserve. Convince the jury, and the victim will have no problem. But if they don’t feel they have a convincing case, well, the decision would rest with the plantiff on how far to take it.

                  • DTK says:

                    @seenbetrdayz

                    Law is not science — you’re not going to have one right answer. But the best answer is going to be whatever is the industry standard. The plaintiff will have an expert testify and say what the standard is. The defendant will also have an expert testify as to what they think the standard is. A jury will decide which side makes the better case. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s a pretty damn good one, and it’s a system that’s served us well for a long time.

                    • seenbetrdayz says:

                      “A jury will decide which side makes the better case. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s a pretty damn good one, and it’s a system that’s served us well for a long time.”

                      Absolutely, agreed.

                      (but isn’t that what this decision does? —reinforce the responsibility of the jury in these cases?) Anyway, I’ve probably made my case about as good as I can. I suppose we’ll have to agree to disagree on other aspects.

                • seenbetrdayz says:

                  Or, from the victim’s perspective, ‘If there had been 8 airbags instead of 7, this wouldn’t have been so bad.’

              • Calypso says:

                I’m going more in Chris’ direction here.

                “Yeah but what I’m saying is that if the plantiff can show that there were x-number of break-ins, then doesn’t he (the victim) share the responsibility of knowing that there was potential for a problem?”

                The plaintiff has become aware of x-number of break-ins AFTER the crime happened to him, not before. Do you actually pull police reports and study crime statistics for Podunk, Kentucky before you pull off the interstate to spend the night at a Holiday Inn there on your drive to Chicago?

                • seenbetrdayz says:

                  You’re right, 99% of people don’t, but personal responsibility is, well, personal. It seems to me that the individual who stays at the hotel might as well be as much to blame as the guy who owns it, although, very little to blame, since neither the hotel owner nor the guy who stays there planned to have a crime take place. We’re stretching this to get away from the person or persons who is really at fault, the criminal.

                  Unfortunately, not everyone who commits a crime is wealthy enough to compensate the victim, but this is nothing new. What is relatively new, in our justice system, is going after some guy with money, regardless of whether or not he had any part in the crime.

                  • DTK says:

                    @seenbetrydayz

                    You’re confusing criminal law with civil tort law and you’re confusing intentional torts with negligent torts.

                    First, no one is arguing that the hotel should be held criminally responsible for this type of case. It’s simply a civil matter. Second, the criminal who invades a customer’s room and shoots him is liable for the intentional tort of battery (amongst other things). This means he intended to do the harm that the customer suffered.

                    The hotel, however, would be liable to the customer based on negligence (assuming all of the facts in my previous posts). That doesn’t mean the hotel should be held morally equal to the criminal. In fact, negligence has nothing to do with morals, or even right or wrong. Negligence simply deals with whether a defendant acted in a way that put the plaintiff in an unreasonable risk of harm. That is, admittedly, a fuzzy definition. What is “unreasonable”?

                    Well, that’s where industry rules and standards come into play. If it’s shown through expert testimony that it’s unreasonable for a hotel to simply have old door locks on its doors when it knows that these door locks are easy to push in, then the hotel can be said to have acted unreasonably by not changing the locks or adding more locks. If a plaintiff can prove that these locks would’ve kept the criminal from invading his room, then he can show that the hotel was negligent in failing to rent him a safe room, which the hotel has a legal duty to do.

                    That’s what these types of cases are about. Under the old rules of joint and several liability, the hotel would be responsible for paying 100 percent of a jury verdict even if the jury found that the criminal was a majority of the reason for the plaintiff’s injuries. That may sound like a harsh result, but the purpose of tort law is not to punish a defendant. It’s to compensate victims. Unfortunately, many folks have wanted to change this rule and make it so the victim will go uncompensated by a judgment-proof criminal so that defendants such as the negligent hotel can escape liability. I understand why they want this, but I don’t think it’s good for society as a whole.

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