ATLANTA — Once a jury decides a hotel was negligent for failing to keep a guest safe from a criminal attack, it may apportion damages among all the parties at fault, including the hotel owner and the criminals, the Supreme Court of Georgia ruled today.
The 5-2 ruling was made in a case stemming from a lawsuit filed in federal court by an Atlanta hotel guest who was attacked and robbed by unknown assailants in August 2009.
The guest of the Red Roof Inn hotel on N. Druid Hills Road and Buford Highway in Atlanta sued the hotel’s owners for negligently failing to keep their premises safe and for failing to provide adequate security. The attackers have not been identified.
The hotel’s owners filed a notice of their intent to argue “fault of non-party” under a recently amended Georgia law, arguing that their responsibility for damages should be decreased “in whole or in part” due to the fault of the criminals who attacked the guest. In response, the guest filed a motion challenging the apportionment, or divvying up, of damages and challenging the statute as unconstitutional.
The case is pending in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia. However, before ruling on a motion, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia asked the state Supreme Court to answer two questions related to Georgia law before ruling on Couch’s motion:
- In a premises liability case in which the jury determines the property owner was negligent in failing to prevent a criminal attack, may the jury consider the fault of the criminal assailants and apportion its award of damages among the owner and the criminals?
- In such a case, would jury instructions requiring the jury to apportion its award of damages among the property owner and the criminal assailants result in a violation of the plaintiff’s constitutional rights to a jury trial, due process or equal protection?
“The rules of statutory construction, including reliance on ordinary word meanings, dictate that an assailant who evades hotel security to intentionally abduct, rob, and assault a hotel guest is, at the very least, partially at ‘fault’ for the brutal injuries inflicted by the assailant on that guest,” Georgia Supreme Court Justice Harold Melton writes for the majority. “As a party at fault, such an assailant must be included with others who may be at fault, e.g., the property owner in a premises liability action, for purposes of apportioning damages among all wrongdoing parties.”