In a court of law, some issues are within the province of the jury, and some are to be determined by the judge. Generally speaking, the jury decides issues of fact, and judges decide issues of law. Sometimes, however, a judge acts as the trier-of-fact in the absence of a jury (which is called a "bench trial"). A judge may also act as a "13th juror" with the authority to decide that "reasonable jurors would have reached a contrary result" and take appropriate action to correct the error.
Additionally, when a party seeks something called "summary judgment," the trial court judge must carefully consider the evidence in deciding whether the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Notably, the judge does not decide which party is in the right with respect to disputed issues but instead only decides whether there is a factual issue that must be resolved by the jury. If the facts are undisputed, the judge decides whether, based upon the applicable law, the moving party is entitled to a judgment ending the case (or at least the particular claim upon which the party seeks summary judgment).
Facts of the Case
In a recent Georgia case involving six consolidated matters, the plaintiffs were social guests who filed suit against the defendant property owner in the State Court of Fulton County, seeking monetary compensation for injuries they sustained when a deck on the defendant's rental property collapsed. The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, but the motion was denied by the trial court. The defendant sought an interlocutory appeal.
Holding of the Court of Appeals of Georgia
The court reversed, holding that the trial court committed a reversible error when it denied the defendant's summary judgment motion. In so holding, the court first explained the standard for granting summary judgment: a court should only enter an order granting summary judgment if, when considering the pleadings, depositions, and other documents filed with the court, there is no genuine issue of material fact. In cases in which the party moving for summary judgment is not the party who will have the burden of proof at trial (such as the defendant in the current case), he or she must point out to the court the absence of evidence to support the opposing party's case. To defeat the motion, the party against whom summary judgment is sought must point to specific evidence that gives rise to a triable issue.
In reviewing the evidence, the court noted that the defendant had owned the house in question since 1987, that a carpenter had built a new deck in 1988 without obtaining a building permit, that the deck was attached using nails rather than bolts, that the tenants who invited the plaintiff onto the premises had rented the house in 2010, and that the defendant had made periodic inspections of the deck prior to its collapse but had not noticed anything amiss. The court further noted that the problem that caused the deck to eventually break away from the house - a rotted rim joist - was apparently concealed by a ledger board and that a code enforcement officer had testified in his deposition that he did not see any defect in the deck that would have been visible prior to the collapse and that, to his knowledge, the premises were in compliance with the building code.
Since the plaintiffs had failed to produce evidence that the defendant either knew or should have known of the defect in the deck, the court found that there was an absence of evidence that would authorize a jury to find that he had failed to exercise reasonable care in repairing a known dangerous condition, an essential element to the plaintiffs' premises liability action. Thus, the court reasoned, the trial court should have entered summary judgment for the defendant.
Need to Talk to an Atlanta Accident Attorney?
If you or someone in your family has been hurt by another party's negligent conduct, you should talk to an attorney about your legal rights. The Law Offices of T. Andrew Miller, LLC, can help. To schedule an appointment with a knowledgeable Atlanta injury attorney, call us today at (678) 894-4758. The first consultation is free.