Can You Sue a Franchisor for Personal Injuries in Georgia?

In a recent decision, the Georgia Court of Appeals considered a premises liability case arising out of a plaintiff’s fall at a hotel. In 2008, the plaintiff checked into Wingate Inn and while taking a bath, tried to get out of the tub by using a grab bar. The bar got loose from the wall and he fell down, hitting his had and hurting his lower back. He required surgery.

The plaintiff sued Sandstone Hospitality, which owned and ran the hotel, and Wingate International, a franchisor that  allowed its name to be associated with the hotel via a franchise agreement. The trial court granted the defendant’s summary judgment motions. A summary judgment motion can be granted if there are no material issues of fact for a jury to decide and the case can be decided by the judge purely as a matter of law.

The plaintiff appealed raising eleven errors. The appellate court affirmed as to Wingate but reversed the summary judgment as to Sandstone. The plaintiff argued on appeal that Wingate had held Sandstone out as its agent in an operating manual that provided all signage had to be approved by Wingate Inns International, Inc. He argued he had relied on Wingate’s care and skill in choosing the hotel.
The appellate court explained that under a theory of apparent or ostensible agency, a plaintiff has to show (1) a principal held somebody else out as its agent; (2) the plaintiff relied on the care of the agent based on the principal’s representation; and (3) relying on the agent caused an injury.

The appellate court explained that merely displaying a trademark was not enough to establish an agency relationship and failing to post a sign stating somebody besides the franchisor owned and operated a business was insufficient.

It was also not enough for a plaintiff to believe there was an agency relationship between an alleged principal and alleged agent. The appellate court explained that there was testimony from a general manager of Sandstone that when the fall happened there had been a sign at the front desk stating the hotel was owned and operated by Sandstone Hospitality LLC. The court therefore concluded there was no agency relationship between Wingate and Sandstone.

The plaintiff also argued that Wingate had undertaken to perform quality assurance inspections of franchisee’s properties. The court explained that Wingate’s manual had specified what kind of shower grab bar was appropriate and that Wingate had agreed to do quality assurance. However, Wyndham Hotel Group’s director of quality assurance testified his group looked only at cosmetic issues, not safety issues.

The plaintiff argued that he was the third party beneficiary of the agreement between Sandstone and Wingate that called for inspections. The appellate court rejected that argument, stating that an injured party couldn’t recover as a third party beneficiary of a contract unless the contracting parties intended to provide a direct benefit to the plaintiff to protect him from physical injury. On this point, too, the court affirmed summary judgment to Wingate.

However, with respect to Sandstone, the court explained that Georgia landowners or occupiers are liable to business customers fro injuries caused by an owners’ failure to exercise ordinary care to keep the premises safe. A plaintiff must show a defendant knew or should have known of a hazard and that he lacked knowledge of the hazard in spite of exercising ordinary care due to a defendant’s actions.
On this point, the court found that there were material issues of fact as to whether Sandstone had constructive knowledge. This part of the lawsuit was sent back to the lower court.

If you are hurt on somebody else’s property, you may be able to file a premises liability suit. Experienced Atlanta personal injury attorney Terrence R. Bethune can evaluate your case and fight for any compensation you may deserve. Contact us at 404-875-7800 or via our online form.

More Blog Posts
What is an Ante-Litem Notice in Georgia? February 28, 2014
Proximate Cause in Georgia Car Accidents, February 13, 2014
Tandem Driving Theory of Liability in Georgia Car Accidents, February 4, 2014