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When Is a Georgia Property Owner Liable for a Sexual Assault on Its Premises?

Sexual assault does not occur in a vacuum. Many victims are people who are personally known to their assailant. And in some cases, sexual assault occurs in an institutional setting, such as a school or a hospital, where the people in charge should have taken steps to prevent an attack. And while it is difficult to pursue criminal charges against negligent property owners for allowing (or enabling) sexual assault on their premises, victims can take civil action under Georgia law to recover financial compensation.

The rules governing such premises liability claims are complex, however, and you can rest assured that in most cases, the institution or property owner will make every effort to admit liability or pay compensation. That is why it is crucial to work with an experienced Atlanta sexual assault lawyer who will work tirelessly on your behalf to hold all parties responsible for your sexual assault legally accountable for their actions.

Georgia Court of Appeals: Patient May Sue Hospital Over Rape

A recent decision from the Georgia Court of Appeals, DL v. St. Francis Health, LLC, illustrates the legal challenges that sexual assault victims face in court. This terrible case involves a woman was raped while lying in a hospital intensive care unit (ICU). The hospital argued it could not be held responsible for what happened. The Court of Appeals, reversing a trial court’s prior ruling in the hospital’s favor, said the case could proceed.

The plaintiff was a patient at the defendant’s hospital in early 2020. In the course of her treatment, the hospital staff sedated the plaintiff and placed her on a ventilator in the ICU. This means she was incapacitated and unable to care for herself. During her stay in the ICU, the plaintiff said that “three men entered her hospital room while she was alone and took turns holding her down and raping her.” The plaintiff said she was awake during the rape but could not cry out or fight the men off due to the fact she was incapacitated and breathing through a ventilator. As a result of the rape, the plaintiff said she contracted a sexually transmitted disease.

After the plaintiff left the hospital, she informed her daughter about the rape. She reported the attack to the police and filed a personal injury lawsuit against the hospital. Among other claims, the plaintiff alleged the hospital was negligent in failing “to keep its premises safe and prevent foreseeable risk of harm” to her while under sedation.

During subsequent pre-trial discovery, the hospital disclosed there were at least five other incidents “involving sexual misconduct” that were reported to the facility in the five years preceding the plaintiff’s rape. Nevertheless, the trial court granted the hospital’s motion to dismiss the case, finding that the plaintiff’s rape was “not reasonably foreseeable” because the five prior incidents were “not substantially similar.”

The plaintiff’s lawsuit is based on Georgia premises liability law. Premises liability governs a property owner’s duty of care to other persons who may be on their premises. We normally think of premises liability in the context of a slip-and-fall accident. For example, if someone slips on a puddle of liquid at the grocery store and sustains injuries, the store owner can be held liable if they failed to exercise reasonable care in keeping the aisle clean.

But premises liability can also extend to third-party criminal acts that occur on private property, including sexual assaults. The difficulty for victims is they must prove that their attack was “reasonably foreseeable” by the property owner. This can include evidence of “substantially similar prior crimes” that occur on or near the property. Yet earlier this year, the Georgia Supreme Court held that such evidence is not strictly necessary to prove reasonable foreseeability. Instead, a jury may consider “other circumstances” in addition to substantially similar prior crimes.

More to the point, the prior crimes do not have to be identical to be cited as evidence. In the St. Francis case, the Court of Appeals said that was important. As previously noted, the hospital admitted there were five prior incidents involving sexual acts against patients under their care. None were identical to the plaintiff’s rape. But looking at the “totality of the circumstances,” as required by the Georgia Supreme Court, the Court of Appeals said a jury could look at the five prior incidents and conclude that the hospital “had reason to anticipate that a sexual assault of an incapacitated patient might occur in its hospital.”

Why Your “Status” Matters When It Comes to Suing Property Owners

A key consideration in any sexual assault lawsuit based on premises liability is the legal “status” of the victim. Premises liability divides claimants into three categories: invitees, licensees, and trespassers. The victim in the St. Francis case–a sedated hospital patient–is considered an invitee. An invitee is someone who is on the property by the express or implied invitation of the owner. In a slip-and-fall case, a customer shopping at a store during normal business hours is an invitee. Under Georgia law, property owners owe the highest duty of care to invitees, i.e., to jeep the premises reasonably safe.

At the other end of the spectrum is a trespasser. If someone is on private property unlawfully and without permission–say, a person hanging out in a mall parking lot after closing hours–and they are sexually assaulted, it would be more difficult to hold the owner responsible in a civil lawsuit. Property owners only have a legal duty not to intentionally injure a trespasser.

In the middle you have licensees, i.e., someone who is permitted onto the property to pursue their own interests. In some cases, an invitee may become a licensee based on their conduct. For example, if a customer or guest of a business ventures into a restricted area, they may be considered a licensee at that point. Property owners owe licensees a duty to avoid recklessly exposing them to hidden dangers or hazards.

Contact Stewart Miller Simmons Trial Attorneys Today

There are many institutions that can–and should–take reasonable steps to protect vulnerable individuals from criminal sexual assault. If you, or someone that you love, has been the victim of a sexual assault and you need legal advice on what steps to take next in holding all of the responsible parties accountable, call Stewart Miller Simmons Trial Attorneys at (404) 529-3476 today or contact us online to schedule a free case evaluation.

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