Trial Error Leads to Reversal in Atlanta Premises Liability Case

As Vis v. Harris, a recent decision from the Court of Appeals of Georgia, demonstrates, even a standard trip and fall case can lead to protracted litigation. The plaintiff in this case was staying as guest at a Sheraton Hotel in Atlanta in 2008, when she allegedly tripped on a non-visible rise in the hotel carpeting and fell. Following her fall, the plaintiff brought suit against an employee at Sheraton, Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, the owner of the Sheraton, and Amerimar Courtland Management Co., Inc., a hotel management company that managed the Sheraton.
During the course of discovery, the counsel for the plaintiff had served Amerimar with requests for admissions, to which Amerimar never responded. The issue of Amerimar’s failure to respond to the requests for admissions was raised on numerous occasions during the remainder of pre-trial discovery. At the beginning of trial, following opening statements, counsel for the plaintiff stated that counsel had admissions to read and began listing the various admissions to which Amerimar had not responded regarding its liability in the suit. Counsel for the defendants never objected, and the trial proceeded. After both parties rested their cases, the court dismissed the jury for the day but directed the parties to remain for the charge conference to narrow the issues to be given to the jury to decide. At this conference, the trial judge noted issues regarding the admissions having been read into the record at the beginning of the trial, despite no request from the defendants having been made about the propriety of reading the admissions. After some discussion on the issue, the trial judge ruled that the admissions would be withdrawn from the record for the jury’s consideration but permitted the plaintiff’s counsel to make his objection to the decision part of the record. Afterward, the parties gave closing arguments, and the case was then given to the jury. Finding the jury’s ultimate decision in favor of the defendants unsatisfactory, the plaintiff’s counsel appealed, arguing that the trial court’s independent decision to withdraw Amerimar’s admission from jury consideration after the close of evidence was reversible error.

In a unanimous decision, the Georgia Court of Appeals agreed and reversed for a new trial. On appeal, the plaintiff argued, contrary to the trial court’s view, that it did not need to get a ruling from the judge in order to read the admissions into the trial record or otherwise use them during the trial. The defendants argued that Amerimar’s lack of response was not raised before trial, and even if it was, reading the admissions to the jury was not a proper method of introducing them into evidence. Requests for admission are governed by O.C.G.A. § 9-11-36. The matters addressed in a written request for admission are deemed admitted unless the party served with a request serves an answer to the request within 30 days of service or 45 days of service of summons and complaint, O.C.G.A. § 9-11-36 (a)(2), and any matter admitted is considered “conclusively established unless the court, on motion, permits withdrawal or amendment of the admission,” OCGA § 9-11-36 (b).
Although the statute states that the admissions are conclusively established, it does not prescribe any method for the admissions to be introduced into evidence, which they must be in order to be considered by the jury. See, e.g., Batosz v. Chapparal Enter., 271 Ga. App. 246, 248 (1) (609 SE2d 185) (2005). The Court of Appeals held that reading the admissions at trial sufficiently introduced them into evidence and noted that counsel for the defendants need not object at that point. Although the defendant argued that the plaintiff failed to file the admissions into the trial court record, the appeals court cited O.C.G.A. § 9-11-29.1 (a)(5), which states that the discovery material need not be filed unless “it is to be used at trial … and said material had not already previously been filed under some other provision of chapter.” In the current case, the Court of Appeals noted that these admissions had been filed as an exhibit in opposition to a motion for summary judgment before trial, and thus the admissions had previously been filed.
The defendants next argued that, while the admissions had been withdrawn from the jury’s consideration, they had still had been read to the jury, and the jury had not been instructed to disregard them. Accordingly, they argued, no prejudice to the plaintiff arose from their being removed from the record. Again, the appeals court disagreed. First, the court noted that the admissions had, by operation of law, been conclusively established and would remain so because the defendants made a motion for them to be withdrawn based on a showing that withdrawal was warranted. Furthermore, although the jury was never directly instructed to disregard the admissions, the admissions had been taken from the record for the jury’s consideration, and the plaintiff’s counsel never had an opportunity to assert the admissions’ conclusive effect during closing arguments, which occurred following the removal from the record. Accordingly, removal of the admissions from the record could not considered harmless.
Although one could argue about the benefit of this appeal, since the defendants will likely make a formal motion before the second trial to have the admissions withdrawn, the plaintiff nonetheless gets a second opportunity to convince his peers of the defendants’ negligence. It has been more than five years since the plaintiff’s injury at the Sheraton, but her legal wrangling continues. While many would not imagine that a simple trip and fall suit would lead to two trials and an appeal, it does happen, and many prospective litigants should consider getting timely advice from experienced counsel before engaging in litigation. The Atlanta premises liability attorneys at the Law Office of Terrence R. Bethune have many years of experience handling these and related negligence suits and are ready to offer you assistance if you find yourself in this situation. Please feel free to contact us for a free case assessment.
Related Links:
Georgia Court of Appeals Examines Effect of Franchise Relationship in Premises Liability Suit
Federal Court Denies Summary Judgment in Premises Liability Case Involving Atlanta Metro Area Wal-Mart
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