Today, the Georgia Court of Appeals issues a ruling that could have a significant effect on personal injury claims involving landlord-tenant claims (including premises liability/negligent security cases) and other types of claims where the parties have entered into a written contract.
In Langley v. MP Spring Lake, LLC, (Case no. 18A0193, May 1, 2018), the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's ruling granting summary judgment to the defendant (the owner of an apartment complex in Morrow, Georgia). The case arose as a premises liability personal injury claim, where the plaintiff alleged that a dangerous or hazardous condition at the properly led to an injury to the plaintiff. In this case, the plaintiff alleged that a crumbling curb at the apartment complex had caused her to fall and be injured. Under Georgia law, a plaintiff filing a lawsuit for a premises liability injury must show that the property owner (or occupier, such as a management company or other person or entity responsible for the property) knew or should have known of a hazardous or dangerous condition, and the plaintiff must further show that this owner or occupier knowledge was superior to that of the plaintiff. In other words, if the plaintiff has equal or greater knowledge of a hazardous condition as the property owner, then the plaintiff cannot successfully make a claim. Many premises liability cases (including negligent security, slip and fall, and trip and fall cases) are dismissed through summary judgment because the court determines that the plaintiff cannot prove the superior knowledge of the property owner.
But that isn't what happened in this case. Here, the trial court and the Georgia Court of Appeals ruled that the terms of the lease required that any lawsuit filed by a tenant be filed within one year of the injury. Generally, Georgia has a two-year statute of limitation for personal injury claims: subject to some exceptions that occasionally apply (including in cases involving criminal charges, minors, and people who are incompetent), a claim alleging a personal injury caused by the negligence of another person or entity must be filed no later than the second anniversary of the injury. Some claims, such as loss of consortium (four years) and defamation claims (one year) have different periods.
The plaintiff entered into a lease agreement with the defendant that was in effect at the time of the tenant's injury. Deep within the lease contract, the lease contained a provision stating that
To the extent allowed by law, Resident also agrees and understands that any legal action against Management or Owner must be instituted within one year of the date any claim or cause of action arises and that any action filed after one year from such date shall be time barred as a matter of law.
The apartment complex argued that this clause required a personal injury lawsuit to be filed within one year of the injury, and here, the injured plaintiff filed suit later than one year after the injury (but before the statutory two-year period). The plaintiff argued, at the trial and appellate courts, that the provision simply didn't apply because the claim did not arise out of the contract - in other words, the plaintiff's status as a tenant was largely irrelevant to whether or not she had a claim, and she was not filing suit under the contract. Although contractual agreements to shorten the statute of limitation have been upheld in Georgia's appellate courts, all previous rulings have involved claims that were directly connected to the parties' duties under the contract. For example, in cases involving homeowners' insurance, Georgia courts have agreed that the insurer can limit the time to file a claim for breach of the insurance contract to one year (in some cases). But Langley was not seeking a claim for breach of contract, and therefore those cases are distinguishable.
It remains to be seen whether the Langley decision will have implications beyond landlord-tenant cases. In theory, the court's rationale could allow any parties who have a contractual relationship to also limit other types of claims. For example, the seller of a car could try to limit the amount of time someone could sue the seller or manufacturer for defects in the car, or a nursing home could limit the time allowed to sue the facility for the injury or death of a loved one (nursing home contracts already frequently make it difficult to recover). It is even conceivable that, beyond limiting the time to file a lawsuit, a landlord could insert a provision limiting the amount of damages a victim could claim, although it is highly questionable whether such a provision would be enforceable.
At a minimum, anyone with a claim against a person or entity should carefully consider whether or not he or she has a contract of any sort with the prospective defendant. If so, that contract should be reviewed to determine whether it limits the rights otherwise permitted by law, and if so, the victim should make sure to be in compliance with those provisions to avoid a contractual defense.