When car or truck drivers drive their vehicle into a commercial business or similar establishment and injury or kill a customer or visitor, the driver, the operator of the business or establishment, and the property owner (if different from the business owner or operator) may all be liable for the injury or wrongful death under Georgia law. Claims may also arise where a driver collides with customers in front of a business (such as those on a sidewalk or at an order window or waiting area) even if the vehicle does not impact the business. These types of cases are known as "storefront crashes," and under the relevant law a plaintiff, upon the introduction of proper evidence, may be able to recover for the injuries or death resulting from the accident. Unfortunately, these types of cases seem to be increasing in frequency, but as a result businesses should have knowledge of the possibility of these sorts of injuries.
With respect to a driver who crashes into a building, general principles of automobile liability law applicable to Georgia car accident cases generally applies. In virtually every case of this type, other than a driver who intentionally drives into a building, the driver is either negligent (and possibly under the influence of drugs or alcohol) or experiencing a medical condition.
If the driver is negligent or under the influence, claims against that driver are probably relatively straightforward, at least with respect to the liability of the driver. If under the influence of drugs or alcohol, the at-fault driver may be subject to punitive damages under Georgia law. Where the at-fault driver claims to have suffered a medical condition, the question of liability can be more complex, and usually requires a careful investigation into the driver's medical background. Even if a driver did, in fact, suffer a medical emergency leading to the accident, it is possible that the driver should have known of the possibility and could be found negligent for driving in the first place. In all cases, as in virtually every Georgia personal injury claim, the victim/plaintiff would still be required to shoe the extent of any injuries and damages claimed.
Regardless of whether liability is proven against the driver, however, the business owner, or owner of the property, may face separate liability. This potential liability is discussed below.
Liability of Business Owner or Operator (and Property Owner) for Storefront Crash Injuries
While the liability of a driver for a storefront crash injury generally turns on Georgia law governing automobile accident claims, claims against the business or property owner usually require consideration of Georgia premises liability law. The same law that broadly covers trip-and-fall, slip-and-fall, and negligent security cases also governs storefront crash cases. Under this body of law, a property owner is liable if it has knowledge of a hazardous or dangerous condition, and that knowledge is greater than that of the victim or plaintiff. The statutory basis for premises liability cases is found at Official Code of Georgia, Annotated (OCGA) § 51-3-1, which states that
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.
Numerous Georgia Court of Appeals and Supreme Court cases have interpreted this law in various contexts, including in the case of storefront crashes. For example, in Chatmon v. Church's Fried Chicken, Inc., 133 Ga. App. 326, 211 S.E.2d 2 (1974), the Court of Appeals found that a jury could find that the business, by creating an area for customers at the front of the store, should have taken greater care to ensure that vehicles would not impact the store or customers, and that the store could be liable when injuries did occur. The next year, the Court of Appeals similarly found that a store that failed to install appropriate devices to stop vehicles from driving onto the sidewalk adjoining the business's parking lot could be liable because it knew of the hazardous condition that existed. Munford, Inc. v. Grier, 136 Ga. App. 537, 221 S.E.2d 700 (1975). On the other hand, not all cases of this type will result in liability on the part of the business owner. In Sotomayor v. TAMA I, LLC, 274 Ga. App. 323, 617 S.E.2d 606 (2005), for example the Court of Appeals found that an apartment owner was not liable where a visitor drove over a curb, across a sidewall, and over 13 feet of grass, before striking and killing a child. And in other cases, where the defendant business had some protective measures in place (such as a high curb or other device intended to prevent cars from driving forward), the court similarly found there could be no liability.
Proving Liability of Business
Proving liability in these cases may be difficult, and the question of liability may not be subject to determination until a lawsuit is filed and the plaintiff is able to investigate the business's potential knowledge of the particular danger as well as its attempts to avoid such accidents from happening. It may be apparent, however, from observing the condition of the property just prior to the crash whether the business had taken reasonable steps to avoid injuries caused by cars driving into the business or onto portions where pedestrians or other customers may be present.
Lack of parking stop devices or bollards (devices, usually cement or metal, that extend up several feet to keep vehicles from proceeding further) may constitute strong evidence that the business or property owner was negligent. If the business has had a prior incident of the same sort, it will be difficult for the business to claim lack of knowledge that an injury could result from its lack of protective measures. But even in the absence of an earlier incident or injury, it may well be possible that the inherent design of a business that allows cars to park in such a way that they are facing the building or other areas where customers congregate may be sufficient evidence for a jury to find that the business was negligent.
Georgia premises liability cases, including those involving negligently designed parking and storefront areas, can be difficult and legally complicated because the information necessary to prove an injured plaintiff's case is often held by a defendant that is reluctant to divulge that information. Georgia law provides techniques and procedures for obtaining this information, which may require motions filed with the court to force a defendant to produce documents, videos, and other evidence. The Hadden Law Firm is experienced in handling cases involving premises liability and can help navigate the difficult issues that can arise in proving liability and damages in such cases.