Hatchett v. McCain Property Care, LLC

Court of Appeals Affirms Summary Judgment Against Plaintiff Who Fell Two Stories After Plaintiff Failed to Support Circumstantial Evidence With Specific Evidence

Facts

In Hatchett v. McCain Property Care, LLC, Hatchett brought suit against McCain Property Care, LLC, for the negligent construction, maintenance, and inspection of a second-floor porch railing that belonged to a two-story apartment/rental house. In January of 2015, the porch was inspected by the property management company. This inspection revealed that there were several porch floorboards that were rotting and needed to be replaced and that the porch railing did not need to be replaced because it did not move when shaken by hand. 

Four months later, Hatchett, the occupant of the first floor, visited his friend in the upstairs apartment unit. After entering the porch area, he sat on a cooler. The cooler slipped and Hatchett fell against the railing. The railing gave way and Hatchett fell approximately 16 feet to the ground, causing him to injure his legs and back. An inspection of the porch railings showed that the railings were not properly secured. 

McCain Property Care, LLC, moved for summary judgment on the basis that there was no evidence that it ever constructed, maintained, or inspected the porch railing. Hatchett argued that there was circumstantial evidence that the railing had to be removed by McCain Property Care, LLC, when it replaced floorboards next to the railing in January of 2015. This evidence consisted of testimony of the owner of the house, who stated that he thought it would have been difficult to replace the floorboards without moving the railing. However, the owner admitted he was speculating.

The trial court granted the Motion and Hatchett appealed. 

Issue & Holding

The issue in this case was whether the circumstantial evidence that the Plaintiff cited was sufficient to overcome summary judgment in response to the Defendant’s testimony negating an essential element of the PLaintiff’s claim. 

The Court held that while “circumstantial evidence may be sufficient for a plaintiff’s claim to survive summary judgment if other theories are shown to be less probable,” the circumstantial evidence that Hatchett cited does not demonstrate a genuine issue of a material fact because the evidence was mere speculation. Callaway v. Quinn, 347 Ga. App. 325, 327- 328 (2018). 

Reasoning

The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling in granting McCain Property Care, LLC’s Motion for Summary Judgment. The Court of Appeals stated that “summary judgment could not be avoided based on mere speculation or conjecture.” Head v. de Souse, 353 Ga. App. 309, 313 (2019). 

Here, because McCain Property Care, LLC’s Motion negated specific elements of Hatchett’s claim, Hatchett had to show specific evidence that would create a triable issue. Hutchins v. Cochran, Cherry, Givens, Smith & Sistrunk, 332 Ga. App. 139, 141 (2015). Hatchett pointed to testimony of the owner of the rental home who speculated that it would be difficult to fix the porch without removing the railing. The owner further admitted that she had no knowledge of the work actually completed by McCain Property Care, LLC. Without that specific knowledge, the assertion was mere speculation. 

Further, Hatchett pointed out that before the work was done on the porch, the railing seemed secure to the property manager. But after the work, the railing was not secure. Hatchett argued that this change was due to McCain Property Care, LLC, removing the railing to repair the floorboards. The Court of Appeals held that this was evidence that the railing become less secure between January and May 2015, but that it was speculation to conclude that this was due to McCain Property Care removing and replacing the railing. 

Conclusion

Hatchett v. McCain Property Care, LLC, reinforces the importance of needing circumstantial evidence that rises above mere speculation in order to get past summary judgment. The evidence in Hatchett would have required a jury to speculate that the Defendant had removed the railing. While circumstantial evidence can be sufficient to get a case to a jury, the evidence cannot invite speculation and conjecture.

Citation: Hatchett v. McCain Property Care, LLC, No. A23A1076 
(Ga. Ct. App. August 23, 2023)

About the Author

Isiah Chavis is a dedicated personal injury lawyer at The Champion Firm. Prior to law school, Isiah served as a Lieutenant Governor for Circle K International, a collegiate branch of the Kiwanis Club. Learn more about Isiah's work here.