Court Holds “Grandfather Clause” Did Not Protect Apartment Complex from Liability in Recent Georgia Premises Liability Lawsuit

Earlier this month, a state appellate court issued a written opinion in a Georgia premises liability lawsuit discussing whether an apartment complex could be held liable for the death of a resident. Ultimately, the court concluded that the apartment complex’s failure to install balcony railings of sufficient height was not excused based on the complex’s “grandfather” status under the local building codes.

According to the court’s opinion, a man lived on a third-floor apartment in the defendant apartment complex with his wife and child. One day, the man was outside of a first-floor apartment drinking beers with some fellow residents. The man’s wife went to bed at 10:00 that evening, and at one point in the evening, the man returned to the apartment to get a shirt. However, the next morning, the man was found dead, 18 feet below the rear balcony of his apartment.

Evidently, when police officers arrived on the scene, they noticed that the rear balcony railing was “shorter than normal” and measured only 29 inches tall. Law enforcement determined that the man fell to his death and that no foul play was involved. The man’s blood-alcohol content was .265.

The man’s wife filed a wrongful death case against the apartment complex, citing the shorter-than-normal railing as the cause of her husband’s death. In support of her claim, the man’s wife presented expert testimony explaining that a 29-inch-high railing constitutes a safety hazard and that, to the best of the expert’s knowledge, there has never been an ordinance in place that would permit such a low railing. The apartment complex filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that because the complex was built in the 1960s (before the current building codes were adopted), it had “grandfather” status and did not need to comply with the code’s railing-height requirement.

The Court’s Decision

The court concluded that the apartment complex did not qualify for “grandfather” status because the railing created a “hazard to life, health, or property.” The court cited the local ordinance, which states that “buildings…in existence at the time of the adoption of the ordinance … shall be permitted to have their use and maintenance continued if … no hazard to life, health, or property is created.” Thus, only existing buildings that did not present a risk to life, health, or property were excused from the new building codes.

Here, given the plaintiff’s expert’s testimony, the court determined that the complex could not establish that it was entitled to “grandfather” status based on the height of the railing. The court explained that it was the apartment complex’s burden to establish it qualified for “grandfather” status, which it failed to do based on the risks presented by the low railing.  Thus, the court affirmed the denial of the apartment complex’s motion for summary judgment.

Have You Been Injured on Another’s Property?

If you or someone you care about has recently been injured in a Georgia slip-and-fall accident, you may be entitled to financial compensation. At McAleer Law, we have a proud history of representing accident victims and their families in all types of Georgia personal injury cases, including slip-and-fall claims. We provide all prospective clients with a free consultation in which we will discuss their case and explain how we can help pursue a claim for compensation. To learn more, call 404-622-5337 to schedule your free consultation today.