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College Not Liable For Student’s Fall From Dorm Bed
In August 2016, Elizabeth Davis (Davis) moved into her dorm room at Valdosta State University (Valdosta), a public university located in Georgia, to begin her freshman year of college. The dorm room contained two lofted beds; one bed was higher than the other bed. Davis’s roommate chose the bed in the lower position before Davis arrived to her room, and Davis was left with the higher bed. Davis put in a request with Valdosta’s housing department to lower her bed, but the request was never fulfilled and Davis did not follow up on lowering the bed.
In October 2016, Davis attended a Halloween party with a friend, had “a couple of beers” during the evening, and went back to her dorm room. Davis felt “tipsy after the party” and fell asleep. During the night, Davis fell out of her lofted bed and blacked out. When Davis woke up, she was lying on her back on the floor with her roommate standing over her. Davis sustained serious injuries that required surgery and a stay in the intensive care unit.
As of result of her injuries, Davis medically withdrew from all of her classes for the fall 2016 semester. She registered for the spring semester and returned to campus for a brief time, during which she had a bed rail installed on her lofted bed and the bed lowered. Davis withdrew during the spring semester because the concussion she suffered during the fall made it difficult for her to concentrate or perform as she had been able to in the past.
Davis filed a complaint against Valdosta based on the theory of premises liability. Davis alleged that Valdosta’s negligence in failing to install safety rails on her lofted bed proximately caused the serious and permanent injuries she suffered from falling out of the bed and Valdosta had notice of the specific risk of falling from the lofted beds due to similar incidents at other University System of Georgia schools. In Georgia, in order to prevail on a premises-liability claim, a plaintiff must prove that (1) the owner or proprietor had actual or constructive knowledge of the hazard and (2) the plaintiff lacked knowledge of the hazard despite exercising ordinary care. Valdosta filed a motion for summary judgment, contending that based on the available facts it was entitled to a judgment in its favor without the need for a trial because Davis’s lofted bed was an open and obvious condition, which precludes liability. The trial court denied Valdosta’s motion and the university appealed.
On appeal, the Court noted that a plaintiff cannot recover damages if the hazard is open and obvious and the plaintiff could have avoided the consequences of a defendant’s negligence by exercising ordinary care. The Court explained that Davis’s lofted bed constituted an “open and obvious” condition and while Valdosta had actual or constructive knowledge of the lofted bed in Davis’s dorm room, Davis also had equal knowledge that the lofted bed was raised off the ground and lacked guard rails. Davis had submitted a request to Valdosta to have the bed lowered and slept in the bed for three months before she fell. The Court concluded this demonstrated that Davis was aware of the open and obvious condition of the lofted bed, that the danger posed by falling from the bed was apparent, and that the risk of falling from the bed was avoidable by exercising reasonable care. Therefore, the Court concluded that Davis was barred from recovery as a matter of law.
Valdosta State University v. Davis (Ga. Ct. App. 2020) 356 Ga.App. 397.
While the student here was barred from recovery because the risks posed by the lofted bed were open and obvious and could be minimized through reasonable care, schools, universities, and colleges do have a duty to take reasonable measures to protect students from foreseeable harm. Accordingly, schools, universities, and colleges should take steps to increase student safety and minimize any risks of which the schools are aware. Further, schools, universities, and colleges should respond promptly to student requests to mitigate dangerous conditions.