Georgia Supreme Court Holds Joint and Several Liability Constitutional

On July 9, 2010 the Supreme Court of Georgia in Couch v. Red Roof Inns, Inc. held that the Georgia law that requires the apportionment of damages was constitutional. In our posting of June 19, 2012 we discussed the differences between “joint and several” liability and “apportionment of damages.” Briefly, under “joint and several” if a jury finds that there is more than one person responsible for the injuries suffered by the plaintiff, then each of those people (or companies) is responsible for the entire amount. With “apportionment of damages” once a jury finds that more than one person (or company) is responsible for the injury, the jury must then determine the percentage of responsibility of each, with each party then being responsible only for his or her portion of the injury. That is, if a plaintiff gets a $100,000 jury verdict, and defendant number 1 is held 35% responsible, that defendant only has to pay $35,000.

The unfairness of this system is apparent from the Couch decision. That case involved a guest at a hotel who was attacked by an intruder who evaded hotel security and escaped. The plaintiff sued the hotel claiming that the hotel failed to provide adequate security, and therefore that the hotel should be responsible for all of the injuries suffered. The United States District Court, where the suit was pending, asked the Georgia Supreme Court to answer that question.

The Georgia Supreme Court held that a jury must be instructed to apportion the damages (the amount of compensation for the injuries) between the hotel and the unknown assailant. According to the Court, the fact that the assailant is not a party to the lawsuit, and probably couldn’t pay anything even if he were a party, is completely irrelevant.

This ruling will eviscerate these types of premises liability claims because a jury would likely put most of the blame on the criminal, and little on the hotel. Assume that a jury gives a $250,000 verdict, but finds that the hotel is only 10% liable. The hotel will pay only $25,000. After attorneys’ fees and expenses the person injured as a result of the hotel’s negligence will get little, if anything.

Once again it is the injured party, the person who did absolutely nothing to cause or contribute to the injury who is left holding the bag. Who does this rule help? It helps the corporations and other defendants, without whose negligence the injury would not have occurred. This blatantly unfair result will be the law in Georgia unless and until the Georgia legislature decides that the law needs to be changed back to “joint and several liability.”