This morning, in addition to hearing oral argument, the Supreme Court of Georgia released opinions in two cases, one of which is within the scope of our coverage. Brief summaries of the case and the decision are below.
This case began after Mr. Couch was robbed at gunpoint by a group of assailants while staying at a Red Roof Inn in Atlanta. He sued Red Roof Inns, alleging negligence and claiming the hotel had actual and constructive knowledge of the criminal activity on the premises. Red Roof Inns removed the case to federal court in the Northern District of Georgia and the case proceeded through discovery.
Both Couch and Red Roof Inns consented to the federal court certifying the following questions to the Georgia Supreme Court:
- In a premises liability case in which the jury determines a defendant property owner negligently failed to prevent a foreseeable criminal attack, is the jury allowed to consider the “fault” of the criminal assailant and apportion its award of damages among the property owner and the criminal assailant, pursuant to O.C.G.A. § 51-12-33?
- In a premises liability case in which the jury determines a defendant property owner negligently failed to prevent a foreseeable criminal attack, would jury instructions or a special verdict form requiring the jury to apportion its award of damages among the property owner and the criminal assailant, pursuant to O.C.G.A. § 51-12-33, result in a violation of the plaintiff’s constitutional rights to a jury trial, due process or equal protection?
The Court heard oral argument on these issues on March 6, 2012.
On July 9, 2012, the Supreme Court answered the questions in a 5-2 decision (Benham and Hunstein dissenting) upholding the apportionment of damages provisions of the Tort Reform Act. Writing for the majority, Justice Melton explained found that “(1) the jury is allowed to apportion damages among the property owner and the criminal assailant and (2) instructions or a special verdict form requiring such apportionment would not violate the plaintiff’s constitutional rights.” The majority found that the language of the statute required that “fault” be considered, including intentional conduct, and jury instructions regarding apportionment do not violate any constitutional rights. Writing in a dissent joined by Presiding Justice Hunstein, Justice Benham would have found that the jury could not consider fault of the criminal assailant and would have declined to answer the second question.