Georgia Court of Appeals Reverses in Atlanta Negligence Case

Although it’s a common warning, it is one that bears repeating:  always keep important documents in a safe place. This common admonition is at the heart of a recent decision from the Georgia Court of Appeals, Sanchez v. Atlanta Union Mission Corporation. At issue in Sanchez was whether a contractual provision signed by the plaintiff prior to his injury had released the defendant from liability.
The plaintiff in Sanchez was injured while performing a work assignment at Atlanta Union Mission Corporation (“Atlanta Mission”) as part of a substance abuse rehabilitation program in which he was enrolled. Specifically,the plaintiff was assigned to disassemble and move several steel-framed hospital beds from the main floor of Atlanta Mission to the basement. However, he was not given instructions on how to best move the beds, lights for use in the basement, or any safety equipment. During the course of his task, the plaintiff was struck in the head by a bed headboard and sustained head and neck injuries that required several days of hospitalization. After the plaintiff brought suit, the Atlanta Mission moved for summary judgment, arguing that a contractual exculpatory clause in the Personal Development Agreement that the plaintiff signed when he enrolled in the Mission’s substance abuse rehabilitation program released Atlanta Mission from liability. The trial court granted the motion, leading the plaintiff to file an appeal.

The principal issue on appeal was whether the signed copy of the Personal Development Agreement was entitled to evidentiary consideration, since the operative exculpatory provisions of the signed copy were completely illegible. Although the signed copy was illegible, the Atlanta Mission submitted an unsigned legible form that it argued was an exemplar of the signed agreement and thus admissible to establish the contents of the signed agreement. Along with the unsigned form, the Atlanta Mission submitted an affidavit from Atlanta Mission’s CFO that stated that the operative portions of the proffered form were the same as those in the form signed by the plaintiff. In granting the motion for summary judgment, the trial court found that the signed copy was legible, and that even if it were not the unsigned form attached to the CFO’s affidavit was an admissible exemplar. The Georgia Court of Appeals, however, disagreed with these conclusions.
First, the Court of Appeals noted that the party that alleges that a contract exists bears the burden of establishing its existence and its terms. Swanstrom v. Wells Fargo Bank, 325 Ga. App. 743, 744 (2) (754 SE2d 786) (2014). The court looked at the signed copies of the agreement between the plaintiff and Atlanta Mission and found that the relevant exculpatory provisions were blurry and impossible to read in their entirety. Accordingly, the court held that the Agreement was not entitled to evidentiary consideration. Id..
Turning to the purported exemplar form, the court reviewed the best evidence rule, which states, “[t]o prove the contents of a writing, recording, or photograph, the original writing, recording, or photograph shall be required,” O.C.G.A. § 24-10-1002, and the common exception to the rule, which states, “[t]he original shall not be required and other evidence of the contents of a writing, recording, or photograph shall be admissible if . . . [a]ll originals are lost or have been destroyed, unless the proponent lost or destroyed them in bad faith,” O.C.G.A. § 24-10-1004 (1). The court noted that a copy of a standard unsigned form contract could be used under circumstances when a signed copy was destroyed or illegible. However, the court found that reliance on extrinsic evidence of the contractual terms was not warranted in the current case, since the affidavit admitted to support admission of the unsigned form “never states that a more legible copy of the [Agreement] signed by [the plaintiff] ever existed, … accounts for the poor quality of the copies of the [Agreement] that do appear in the record or otherwise explain[s] why a more legible copy could not be produced.” Furthermore, the affidavit “never mentions the [Agreement] signed by [the plaintiff] and never links it to the alleged exemplar in any respect,” nor explains why legible portions of the signed agreement and portions of the unsigned form contain unexplained discrepancies. Accordingly, the Atlanta Mission failed to satisfy the burden of showing why application of the exception to the best evidence rule was warranted.
Beyond demonstrating the need to keep important documents secure and in decent condition, this decision shows how parties will often try to avoid liability through the use of pre-injury contractual releases. Had the Atlanta Mission kept a legible copy of the signed document, it likely could have avoided liability in the case, leaving the plaintiff without recovery for his injury. Given the ubiquity of pre-injury contractual waivers, personal injury litigation will often involve arguments surrounding contracts, including those regarding admissibility and coverage. In light of these issues, the advice of competent legal counsel is essential for anyone considering bringing even the most straightforward personal injury suit. The Atlanta injury attorneys at the Law Office of Terrence R. Bethune have considerable experience in personal injury litigation and common issues that arise in the course of such litigation. If you’ve recently suffered an injury and are curious about your legal options, feel free to contact us for a free case evaluation.

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