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Georgia Court of Appeals Clarifies Voluntary Undertaking Doctrine

On March 13, 2020, the court addressed the question of whether a residential rehabilitation facility owed a duty to a program participant who was sexually assaulted after leaving the facility for a job assignment where employment was a required part of the rehabilitation program. Plaintiff, who had agreed to the rehabilitation program as part of a diversion program to avoid jail time, had missed her bus to work and, instead of waiting for the next bus, walked to a convenience store, where she was sexually assaulted. St. Jude’s Recovery Center, Inc. v. Laura Vaughan, Case No A19A2438.

At trial, where summary judgment was denied, the plaintiff argued that St. Jude’s had voluntarily undertaken a duty of protection of plaintiff citing Martin v. Six Flags Over Georgia, 301 Ga. 323 (2017) as support for the expanded duty. There was also evidence that after the attack, St. Jude’s had established a “buddy system” requiring program participants not to walk alone when traveling to work assignments. Plaintiff had essentially argued that the rehabilitation program – with its required travel for mandatory work assignment – had expanded its “premises” and “approaches” to include the duty to protect program participants outside of the facility.

The Georgia Court of Appeals rejected these notions and reversed the trial court:

St. Jude’s is entitled to summary judgment on Vaughn’s claims because the

undisputed evidence shows that the actions of the rapist were the proximate cause of her injury. “[T]he rule is that an intervening and independent wrongful act of a third person producing the injury, and without which it would not have occurred, should be treated as the proximate cause, insulating and excluding the negligence of the defendant.” Goldstein, 300 Ga. at 841 (1) (citation and punctuation omitted).

The Court further rejected arguments that the foreseeability doctrine as to third party’s acts applied in this context. The court explained that plaintiff and the trial court had confused vulnerability of the plaintiff with foreseeability of a third party’s actions:

“[W]ithout reasonable foreseeability — a hallmark of proximate cause — there

exists no genuine issue of material fact as to the third element of [Vaughn’s]

negligence claim: causation.” Tyner, 305 Ga. at 488 (3). So the trial court erred by

denying the summary judgment motion filed by St. Jude’s, and we reverse.

A petition for certiorari to the Supreme Court of Georgia is currently pending (4/20/20).

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