Food Poisoning in Georgia

In a big victory for parties injured by contaminated or defective food, the Georgia Supreme Court made it significantly easier for food poisoning victims to recover for their injuries. See Patterson v. Kevon, No. S17G1957. Up until this recent decision, a food poisoning victim was required to submit direct evidence of the defectiveness of the food and was only allowed to submit circumstantial evidence if every other reasonable hypothesis as to the cause of the illness was excluded by the evidence.

What this meant in plain English is that, in most instances, an injured party could make a recovery only if they had the actual food item and if the food item was tested in a lab. This was an unrealistic standard because food poisoning symptoms typically appear several hours after consuming the food. And many times, several days pass before symptoms are connected with the defective food. By that time, the food item is long gone.

The facts of the case were, several days after eating BBQ at a wedding, the victim and another guest were diagnosed with salmonella. In addition, 17 other guests had become ill with similar symptoms. Prior to the current ruling, the BBQ caterer would have been able to successfully argue that because the injured party didn’t have the food item to present as evidence (direct evidence), the injured party would lose. This is because the salmonella, in theory, could have been ingested during another meal.

The new decision says that circumstantial evidence, by itself, is enough. Thus, although the victim couldn’t produce a food item that tested positive for salmonella, he had testimony from 19 people attending the wedding, all who suffered salmonella symptoms in the days following the wedding. Even though this was only circumstantial evidence of his injury, it was enough for the injured party to present his case to a jury.

Slip and Fall in a Parking Lot

Who is responsible when you’re injured in a shopping center parking lot. Is it the store you were shopping in? Is it the owner of the shopping center? Or, is it both? These were the issues decided in a recent Georgia appellate case. See Boyd v. Big Lots Stores, Inc., 18A1140 (July 31, 2018).

In what is likely one of his last opinions, Judge Andrews, writing for the court, predictably sides against the injury party. Judge Andrews is retiring from the bench, and for attorneys who represent injured parties, it can’t come soon enough. While Judge Andrews authors intelligent, articulate opinions, he typically sides with businesses and insurance companies.

With regard to parking lot injuries, the general rule is that a business must keep its premises and approaches safe for its customers. This includes protecting its customers from known dangerous conditions in the parking lot. In the Big Lots case, the customer was injured 45-feet away way from the store entrance. The Court of Appeals explained that an “approach” to a premises refers to property that is within the last few steps taken by the customer, as opposed to mere pedestrians. More specifically, an approach “is that property directly contiguous, adjacent to, and touching those entryways to [the] premises under the control of an owner or occupier of land, through which the owner or occupier, by express or implied invitation, has induced or led others to come upon his premises for any lawful purpose, and through which such owner or occupier could foresee a reasonable invitee would find it necessary or convenient to traverse while entering or exiting in the course of the business for which the invitation was extended.”

In Big Lots, the customer exited the store, walked across a sidewalk, and continued away from the store into the parking lot. The Court decided she was no longer within the store’s “approach” when she slipped and fell because the area was not adjacent to or touching the entry/exit of the store.

Although Big Lots got out of the case, all was not lost for the injured party as she still has a claim against the owner of the shopping center for her injuries.

Venue In An Uninsured Motorist Lawsuit

The Georgia Supreme Court has ruled that an uninsured motorist lawsuit against a known defendant and an unknown defendant can be brought in the county where the accident occurred. Carpenter v. McMann et al., S17G1894 (8/2/18).

The Georgia Constitution says, generally, that lawsuits must be filed in the county in which the responsible party resides. But, it also says that if there are two or more responsible parties who reside in different counties, the lawsuit can be filed in either of the defendants’ “home” counties.

In Carpenter, one of the (alleged) responsible parties left the scene of the collision and was therefore unknown. Lawyers and the courts label these unknown parties as “John or Jane Does.” Under Georgia uninsured motorist law, a lawsuit against a John or Jane Doe can be brought in the county where the collision occurred. What is a little unusual in Carpenter is there was one known defendant and one unknown defendant.

The question before the Georgia Supreme Court was whether the lawsuit should have been filed in the county where the known defendant resided instead of where the collision occurred. Reading the Georgia constitution and relevant statutory provisions together, the Court found that the plain language of drafted by the Georgia legislature permitted the injured party to choose the county where the collision occurred (via the unknown driver) and not the county where the known driver resided.

Who Gets Excess Tax Sale Funds in Georgia?

Revisiting a previous post, under Georgia law, a tax commissioner holds excess funds generated by a tax sale in a fiduciary capacity, and the disbursement of those funds is governed by OCGA § 48-4-5. But, after a tax sale, if there are any excess funds after paying taxes, costs, and all expenses of a sale, who gets these funds? The answer, generally, is that distribution of excess tax funds is based on the right to the funds at the time of the tax sale.

If there are excess tax funds, the officer selling the property shall give written notice of the excess funds to the record owner of the property at the time of the tax sale and to the record owner of each security deed affecting the property and to all other parties having any recorded equity interest or claim in such property at the time of the tax sale. Such notice shall be sent by first-class mail within 30 days after the tax sale. The notice shall contain a description of the land sold, the date sold, the name and address of the tax sale purchaser, the total sale price, and the amount of excess funds collected and held by the tax commissioner, tax collector, sheriff, or other officer. The notice shall state that the excess funds are available for distribution to the owner or owners as their interests appear in the order of priority in which their interests exist.

If there is a dispute regarding who is entitled to the excess tax funds, an interpleader is filed and the excess funds are distributed by the superior court to the intended parties, including the owner, as their interests appear and in the order of priority in which their interests exist.

Some issues that come up in regard to distribution of excess tax funds is whether a “super-lien” obtained via a redemption gives the redeeming party first priority on the excess funds. The answer is no because a super-lien places a lien on the property but not on the excess tax sale funds.

Another issue is when additional taxes come due after the tax sale—is the tax commissioner allowed to use the excess funds for taxes due after the tax sale? The answer is no because the tax deed purchaser is the party responsible for paying property taxes after the tax sale. The remedy for the tax purchaser is to add taxes paid to the redemption price.

Service by Publication in a Quiet Title or Tax Deed Barment

In both a tax deed barment and the subsequent quiet title, a critical part of the procedure is serving all parties with an interest in the subject property. This includes lien holders, heirs, and anyone else with a claim against the property.

Often in these situations, especially when the property is distressed or abandoned, parties connected with the property may be hard to find. The best example is the delinquent taxpayer. That party has not paid taxes for one or more years, and, many times, has abandoned possession. If the delinquent taxpayer is gone and hasn’t left a forwarding address, that party may be anywhere.

What must be done in these situations? A reasonable and diligent search must be conducted to find and serve each party that has an interest. In a barment, this requires personal service for parties residing in the county of the tax sale or certified mail for parties residing outside the county. In a quiet title, personal service is required.

What if personal service or certified mail is unsuccessful? For example, you get back the certified letter stating it is undeliverable. In those situations, you’re entitled to serve by publication. This usually means advertising notice of the barment or lawsuit in the official county newspaper for four consecutive weeks.

Sound simple . . . usually it is  straightforward, but there are times when things don’t work out as expected. In a recent case, Dukes v. Munoz et al., A18A0572 (decided June 15, 2018), a tax deed holder, unable to serve the delinquent taxpayer, hired an investigator. The investigator came back saying the delinquent taxpayer could not be found after reasonable search. Relying on the investigator’s testimony, the tax deed holder barred the taxpayer’s right of redemption and filed a successful quiet title action.

Happy tax deed holder and end of story . . . not so much. Turns out that the delinquent taxpayer was a Georgia state legislator, who found out about the barment and quiet title. The Georgia Court of Appeals ruled that because a Google search would have provided the address for the delinquent taxpayer, the tax deed holder had not exercised proper diligence in locating the delinquent taxpayer. Therefore, service by publication was improper and the barment and quiet title were voided; the tax deed holder was forced to incur the expense of the barment and quiet title.

The takeaway is that it’s not sufficient to use the last known address of party if that address appears invalid. The best approach, in our opinion, is to spend a little extra money to make sure parties with an interest are served and given a proper opportunity to object.