This summary of today’s Georgia Supreme Court decision, in a gruesome fight over who is responsible for local wildlife, just rolled out:
In a split 4-to-3 decision, the Supreme Court of Georgia has reversed a Georgia Court of Appeals ruling in a high-profile Chatham County case involving an elderly woman who was partially eaten by an alligator.
As a result of today’s decision, written by Justice Harold Melton, the woman’s family has lost its attempt to have a jury try their case against the owners of the gated community where Gwyneth Williams was killed.
“Because the record shows that Williams had equal knowledge of the threat of alligators within the community, we reverse,” today’s majority decision says.
According to briefs filed in the case, Williams was housesitting for her daughter and son-in-law at their home in The Landings, a gated residential community of about 8,500 residents located on 4,500 acres on Skidaway Island, a coastal barrier island near Savannah. The 83-year-old woman, who lived independently in Canada, had visited her daughter a number of times before, sometimes staying a couple of months. This time, she had offered to care for the couple’s two dogs while they were in Italy.
Alligators are indigenous to the area, and the animals were there before and after The Landings was developed in the 1970s. In building the property, the developers had drained swampy areas and created an interconnected system of 151 lagoons. Since the community was developed, there had never been an alligator attack against a person. Although no warnings about alligators were posted at the lagoons, The Landings Association did warn residents in publications and on its website that alligators were present and could be extremely dangerous. It also said it had a policy of arranging to have a state Department of Natural Resources trapper remove aggressive alligators or any greater than seven feet in length.
Behind the house where Williams was staying was Lagoon No. 15, which was bordered by a park-like common area on one side and a golf course owned by The Landings Club on the other. Although there were no witnesses, on the night of Oct. 5, 2007, Williams apparently went alone for a walk sometime after 6:00 p.m. At about that time, several boys reported to the property’s security forces that they heard a woman crying for help. On Oct. 6, Williams’ mutilated body was found floating in Lagoon No. 15. Her right foot and both forearms had been bitten off. Later an eight-foot alligator was found in the same lagoon and parts of Williams’ body were found in the animal’s stomach.
In October 2008, Williams’ heirs sued The Landings Association and The Landings Club, joint owners of the lagoon, seeking damages for the wrongful death of Gwyneth Williams. The owners responded by filing motions for summary judgment. (A court grants “summary judgment” when it determines there is no need for a jury trial because there is no genuine debate over the facts and the person requesting the judgment is entitled to it based on the law.)
Following a hearing, the trial court partially denied the owners’ motions for summary judgment, meaning the case could proceed to trial. The trial court found that questions of fact remained as to whether The Landings failed to take reasonable steps to protect Williams from being attacked and killed by an alligator on its property. On appeal, the Court of Appeals found the trial court was correct in partially denying the owners’ motions for summary judgment. The owners then appealed to the state Supreme Court.
“In this case, testimony shows that Williams was aware that wild alligators were present around The Landings and in the lagoons,” the majority opinion says. “Therefore, she had knowledge equal to The Landings entities about the presence of alligators in the community.” Furthermore, the majority states, Williams knew the alligators were dangerous, yet still chose to walk at night near a lagoon where she knew wild alligators were present. “Under these circumstances, the trial court should have granted the motions for summary judgment brought by the Landings entities regarding Williams’ premises liability claims,” states the majority, joined by Justices Hugh Thompson, P. Harris Hines and David Nahmias.
In the dissent, Justice Robert Benham writes that while there was evidence Williams had once seen an alligator in the area, there was no “competent evidence” that she knew there were alligators over seven feet in size living there. Premises liability cases such as this can only be resolved by summary judgment when the evidence is “plain, palpable and undisputed.” Here it is not, says the dissent, joined by Chief Justice George Carley and Presiding Justice Carol Hunstein.
For one thing, The Landings advertised it removed any alligators that were aggressive or longer than seven feet. “Indeed, there are very specific questions in this case that must go to a jury,” the dissent says, including whether Williams knew there were large and aggressive alligators in the community and whether The Landings’ owners had exercised reasonable care in keeping the premises safe.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider