Jordan v. H. J. Russell & Company, et al.

Georgia Court of Appeals Rules That Landlord-Tenant Statute Applies to Preclude Landlord’s Liability for Accidental Shooting of Tenant’s Child Inside Apartment Unit

Facts

In the case of Jordan v. H. J. Russell & Company, Marquita Jordan sought damages against an apartment complex’s owners and managers for the death of her minor child after a shooting at the apartment complex. 

Plaintiff and her minor child, S.J., lived at the apartment complex. One night, S.J. went with other children to play games at another apartment unit in the complex. While at the other unit, one of the minor children retrieved a handgun from his mother’s closet and fired it, which killed S.J. A few days prior to the shooting, three other residents had warned the apartment complex’s security guards that a minor child had been seen at various locations at the complex with a gun.

Plaintiff filed suit and asserted claims under Georgia’s premise liability statute (O.C.G.A. § 51-3-1) and under Georgia’s landlord-tenant statute (O.C.G.A. § 44-7-14). At trial, Defendants moved for a directed verdict, arguing that the Plaintiff could not recover under either theory. The trial court granted Defendants’ directed verdict on the claim based on the landlord-tenant statute only, but submitted the claim based on the premises liability statute to the jury. The jury returned a verdict for the Defendant. 

Plaintiff appealed, contending that the trial court erred in granting a directed verdict under the landlord-tenant statute. The Defendant cross-appealed, arguing that the trial court should have granted a directed verdict for the defense under the premises liability statute as well.

Issue & Holding

The issue in this case was whether Plaintiff’s claims were viable under the premises liability statute or whether she only had potential claims under the landlord-tenant statute.

The Court of Appeals held that the premises liability statute did not apply to the Plaintiff’s claims. Because the landlord-tenant statute applied, Plaintiff could not recover damage under the plain language of that statute. 

Reasoning

Georgia’s premises liability statute, O.C.G.A. § 51-3-1, provides:

Where an owner or occupier of land, by express or implied invitation, induces or leads others to come upon his premises for any lawful purpose, he is liable in damages to such persons for injuries caused by his failure to exercise ordinary care in keeping the premises and approaches safe.

On the other hand, the landlord-tenant statute, O.C.G.A. § 44-7-14, states:

Having fully parted with possession and the right of possession, the landlord is not responsible to third persons for damages resulting from the negligence or illegal use of the premises by the tenant; provided, however, the landlord is responsible for damages arising from defective construction or for damages arising from the failure to keep the premises in repair.

The Court of Appeals cited Georgia Supreme Court precedent in stating that the location of the dangerous condition controls which statute applies. See Cham v. ECI Mgmt. Corp., 311 Ga. 170 (2021). If the dangerous condition is in an area the landlord still possesses, then the premises liability statute applies. However, if the dangerous condition is in an area the tenant possesses (e.g. in the tenant’s residence), then the landlord’s liability is determined under the landlord-tenant statute. Liability under that statute is more narrow, so the resolution of this question was critical to the outcome of the case.

In analyzing “where the alleged cause of the injury lay,” the Court of Appeals observed that the minor retrieved the loaded gun from inside his mother’s apartment. Because this was inside the tenant’s residence, the landlord-tenant statute applied. The Court of Appeals concluded that even though the minor was seen with a gun in the common areas of the apartment complex prior to this incident, the danger was located inside the tenant’s apartment on the day of the shooting. 

The Court of Appeals rejected two arguments that the Plaintiff made. First, the Plaintiff argued that Martin v. Six Flags Over Ga. II, 301 Ga. 323 (2017), required application of the premises liability statute based on the reasonably foreseeable consequences of the defendant’s failure to exercise ordinary care to keep its premises safe. The Court of Appeals held that case did not apply because this case involved landlord-tenant law and the choice between which of two statutes applied in evaluating the landlord’s liability.

Second, the Plaintiff argued that the Defendants had not fully parted with possession of the apartment because (1) the tenant agreed not to use the unit for unlawful purposes or engage in unlawful activities, and (2) the lease gave the landlord the right to enter the apartment at reasonable hours as it deemed necessary for safety or for the safety or convenience of the occupants. The Court of Appeals cited prior case law that held that a landlord’s right to enter leased premises for landlord-related purposes does not constitute the type of dominion and control that would allow a landlord to be held liable under O.C.G.A. § 51-3-1.

In analyzing liability under the landlord-tenant statute, the Court of Appeals held the Defendants could not be held liable based on the plain language of the statute. 

Conclusion

This case demonstrates the importance of identifying the dangerous condition and where it was located at the time of the injury when pursuing a case for injuries that occur on a residential property. The landlord’s liability will be much narrower if the dangerous condition was located inside a tenant’s residence. If the dangerous condition was located in a residence, the landlord can only be held liable defective construction or the failure to keep the premises in repair. 

Citation: Jordan v. H. J. Russell & Company, et al; and vice versa, 
No. A23A1387, A23A1388, (Ga. Ct. App. March 12, 2024)

About the Author

Relentless in fighting for her clients, Atlanta personal injury attorney Andrienne McKay specializes in all types of motor vehicle accidents and premises liability cases. Learn more about Andrienne's work with the firm here.