The Georgia Supreme Court in Martin v. Six Flags Over Georgia II, L.P., 301 Ga. 323 (Ga. 2017) recently ruled that liability may arise from a landowner’s failure to maintain the safety and security of its premises even if the resulting injury is “completed beyond the territorial sphere.”  This case offers a cautionary tale for landowners as the court reinstated a massive $35,000,000 verdict against Six Flags and four assailants.  Although the court found the bus stop where the assault occurred was not within Six Flags’ “premises and approaches” under the applicable Georgia statute, it nonetheless held the park liable for a violent criminal attack.  

Plaintiff Joshua Martin was brutally attacked by several gang members as he and two others exited the Six Flags amusement park and walked to a nearby bus stop.  Earlier that day, a large group of men, which included numerous off-duty Six Flags employees, wandered the park harassing guests.  Prior to Plaintiff’s attack, two other patrons reported the group to Six Flags’ security after one member nearly collided with a child and the rest of the group surrounded the patrons, making threatening gestures and remarks, stating “we’ll get you in the parking lot” and throwing up “finger gun” signs.  Six Flags’ security admonished the group, but did not remove them from the park.  A park security guard later testified this was not in compliance with the company’s policy.   

The two patrons saw the same group of men as they exited the park later that evening, and the mass had swelled to approximately 40 individuals.  These men followed the two families to their cars and someone yelled “drop the hammer,” which they understood to be a gun reference.  The two families exited the park safely, but the group of belligerents moved back to the main gate of the park.  Plaintiff and his companions exited the park, walked to a nearby hotel to use the restroom, and then returned to the park’s main gate to wait for the bus.  It is unclear why Plaintiff and his companions did not wait at the actual bus stop, which was approximately 200 feet from the Six Flags property line.  As they waited, Plaintiff and his companions overheard someone in the group of gang members say that “some guy’s going to get messed up.”  Plaintiff and the two others tried to distance themselves from the group and moved toward the bus stop, but the thugs followed.  In a sudden and unprovoked attack, one of the men attacked Plaintiff and punched him with brass knuckles.  Others joined in the attack.  The men beat Plaintiff so badly that fell into a week-long coma, and was left with permanent brain damage and bodily injuries.

The Georgia statute governing premises liability provides:                             

Where an owner or occupier of land, by express or implied invitation, induces or leads others to come upon his premises for any lawful purpose, he is liable in damages to such persons for injuries caused by his failure to exercise ordinary care in keeping the premises and approaches safe.

In Georgia, a landowner has a duty to protect its invitees against “unreasonable risk” of which it has “superior knowledge.”  As it relates to third-party criminal activity, a landowner’s duty “extends only to foreseeable criminal acts.”  When evaluating the foreseeability of crimes completed offsite, Georgia courts consider the physical and temporal proximity of the invitee’s presence onsite and the circumstances giving rise to the injuries.  The court explained these limitations ensure the necessary connection to the landowner-invitee relationship, but it is not clear where liability ends.

The Georgia Supreme Court concluded Plaintiff’s injuries were foreseeable, and the court seemed especially outraged by Six Flags’ active concealment of prior criminal gang activity on its premises.  The court explained the park was the site of a gang-related drive-by shooting one year before plaintiff’s attack, but a Six Flags official had urged law enforcement not to “release any information that would lead the public to believe that Six Flags Over Georgia was anything but a safe, family atmosphere.”  Local law enforcement recommended the park invest in a police presence at all times due to the gang activity, but Six Flags decided against the additional cost.

The Georgia Supreme Court upheld liability against a landowner for off-premises assaults even though there had been no interaction between the assailants and Plaintiff inside the park itself.  In fact, the court acknowledged “the site of the physical attack on Martin was undisputedly a public bus stop, serving county-owned buses, situated on a public road…that itself is not adjacent to any property owned or operated by Six Flags.”  It is also unclear what the court expected Six Flags to do differently.  Even if Six Flags had ejected the gang members from the park, there is no reason to believe the outcome would have changed.  Two group members testified that the others were “actively planning a fight” and were “going to fight people at the bus stop.”  Would the group’s removal from the park have prevented Plaintiff’s offsite attack, or would the assailants have simply turned their aggression to another random victim?  In Georgia, it had been well-established that a landowner “is not the insurer of the invitee’s safety,” but this ruling seems to blur this line.  In the wake of Martin v. Six Flags, landowner liability seems dangerously broad.