Articles Posted in Premises Safety

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It was a tragic story of unspeakable loss when we learned of four siblings’ deaths in a Conyers, Georgia fire in a duplex on January 8, 2013. As a plaintiff’s personal injury lawyer, I so often help families deal with unexplainable loss and sorrow. We have since learned that the fire was started by a six year old brother of the four siblings who died. Apparently, the young boy was playing with a cigarette lighter in the stairwell of a duplex the family rented. I say “started the fire” instead of “caused their deaths” because the real “proximate” cause of the deaths was the lack of any smoke detectors in the rented duplex. “Investigators… determined that the only smoke alarm in the duplex was downstairs and that it had no battery in it. Dwayne Garriss, state fire marshal, said it is state law that smoke detectors must be placed outside any sleeping area. However, he said the landlord will face no liability, because the law carries no penalties for a first offense. It provides a $25 fine for a second offense.”

That’s a crime in and of itself, isn’t it? Certainly, failing to have the mandatory smoke detectors in place as required by law and then renting the duplex to a family with five small children is criminal. Under Georgia law (O.C.G.A. §25-2-40) an approved battery operated smoke detector is required in every apartment, house, condominium, and townhouse constructed prior to July 1, 1987. The smoke detector is to be located on the ceiling or wall at a point centrally located in the corridor or other area giving access to each group of rooms used for sleeping. Where the dwelling has more than one story, detectors are required on each story including cellars and basements, but not including uninhabitable attics. The detectors must be listed and meet the installation requirements of NFPA 72. The law is to be enforced by local building and fire code officials.

It seems that the landlord, at the very least, recklessly subjected the family to exactly this type of risk of death. Obviously, had there been smoke detectors, the alarms would have gone off and would have awakened the mother in time for her to save her childrens’ lives. Instead, they are dead and she is left with horrible burns on most of her body.

Just hours after I blogged about the killing of little Jorelys Rivera, we all learned that the perpetrator was an employee of the apartment complex where Jorelys lived. The horrible crime occurred in a vacant apartment that perpetrator knew was vacant and had easy access to, especially since he was the apartment’s maintenance man. Before I knew any of this, I had already suggested that whoever had done this horrific deed had access to the vacant apartment and knew it was vacant, essentially giving the perpetrator the perfect placd to committ his crime. How did I know before the GBI ever disclosed these facts to the public? Because this is a fact pattern that often repeats itself and as a plaintiff’s personal injury lawyer in Atlanta, I see this in the civil premises safety cases I bring for clients.

Now I read in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution online today a story about another hideous crime, this time the rape of two women. I have often represented such crime victims in civil personal injury lawsuits here in Fulton County, Georgia, against the negligent property owners. Property owners, especially commercial property owners like the apartment complex where Jorelys was killed, know that vacant, abandonded property is a haven for crime. These property owners have a duty to eliminate that risk, to use ordinary care to keep the premises safe. These owners cannot claim they had no idea that a unforseen criminal attack would occur on their property, because they absolutely know if they have vacant property that a criminal can easily gain access to, they are essentially aiding and abetting the crime by furnishing the scene of the crime. This is what happened in these two rapes in Atlanta today and this is what happened in the death of Jorelys Rivera. And with so many homes in Atlanta and in Georgia under Foreclosure now, the problem of anbandoned property is growing.

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The news this week of the tragedy of the death of seven year old Jorelys Rivera was horrifying. Little Jorelys Rivera had been playing on the playground at her apartment complex, River Ridge, in Canton, Georgia, told friends she was going back to her apartment to get a drink, and never returned. Her little body was found in a nearby garbage dumpster yesterday. There was evidence that Jorelys’ abducter had sexually abused her and stabbed her.

Investigators with Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) now report they found blood in a vacant apartment in the River Ridge Complex. This is crucial evidence, as it perhaps not only indicates the exact place of the death, but also implicates liability on the apartment complex for having a vacant apartment that was accessible to anyone, including Jorelys’ abducter. Further, it indicates her abducter may have known in advance of the vacancy of the apartment and his easy ability to enter it without a key and without any apparent force. Additionally, the playgound from which she was abducted was owned by River Ridge.

Under Georgia law, O.C.G.A. Section 51-3-1, a landowner has a nondelegable duty to keep its premises and approaches safe. This means they can’t pawn this duty off on someone else. Property owners are under a duty to take reasonable precautions to protect invitees from dangers which are foreseeable from arrangement and use of premises. In this context, any renter and any family member of the named renter living in the rented apartment would be considered an “invitee” for these purposes, to whom the landlord owes the highest duty of care, that of “reasonable care.” Thus, from the mere fact that this child’s abducter ostensibly knew of this vacant apartment and knew that he had unfettered access to it away from witnesses indicates to me that the landlord must not have exercised “reasonable care” to keep the premises safe so as not to allow a vacant apartment be used for criminal purposes. Landlords must be trained to be diligent in blocking access to vacant apartments or vacant buildings, as statistics show that criminal abducters are more likely to abduct someone if they know in advance they have access to a place to take their victim.

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