In Langley v. MP Spring Lake, LLC, the Georgia Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s ruling that a residential lease contract may shorten the limitations period from the statutory two years to one year for a resident to bring a personal injury claim against their landlord.  This is the first time a Georgia appellate court has enforced a contractual provision shortening the time period to bring a personal injury claim against a landlord.  Generally, the shortening of a limitations period has been limited to breach of contract claims.

In Langley, the resident filed suit on March 3, 2016 against her apartment complex arising out of a trip and fall in the common area of the apartment complex on March 3, 2014.  The apartment complex moved for summary judgment, arguing that because the resident’s residential lease with the apartment complex contained a one-year limitation period for bringing legal actions, the resident’s claim was time barred.  In the 33rd paragraph of the lease, the agreement provides:

Limitation Actions. To the extent allowed by law, Resident also agrees and understands that any legal action against management or Owner must be instituted within one year of the date any claim or cause of action arises and that any action filed after one year from such date shall be time barred as a matter of law.

The trial court granted the apartment complex’s motion for summary judgment, holding that because the trip and fall occurred on March 3, 2014, the resident had until March 3, 2015 to bring a lawsuit according to the time limitation provision in the residential lease.  The resident then appealed the decision to the Georgia Court of Appeals.

On appeal, the resident argued that the time limitation provision only applied to claims related to the lease contract, not personal injury claims.  She further argued that it would be overly broad and improper to interpret the lease provision to also apply to personal injury claims.  The appellate court disagreed, however, stating that the time limitation provision is perfectly clear when it states: “To the extent allowed by law, Resident also agrees and understands that any legal action against Management or Owner must be instituted within one year of the date any claim or cause of action arises and that any action filed after one year from such date shall be time barred as a matter of law.”

The Court reasoned that while the time limitation provision is broad and does not explicitly specify that it includes personal-injury actions, the provision encompasses any legal action, and personal injury claims fall under the umbrella of any legal action.

The Court added that all parties in Georgia are free to contract and waive numerous and substantial rights unless prohibited by statute or public policy, and no statute or public policy in Georgia is violated by this lease provision.

Finally, the Court held that all of these factors combined with the Georgia Supreme Court’s prior decisions allowing parties to a contract the power to agree upon a period of time to bring claims against each other makes the lease provision at issue enforceable.

It will be interesting to see if the Georgia Supreme Court weighs in on this case.  If it is ultimately upheld or if the Georgia Supreme Court denies certiorari, the Langley case could have a substantial impact on premises liability claims against landlords, who now can enforce time limiting provisions in residential leases that shorten the time to bring a claim from two years to one year.

If Langley becomes the law of Georgia, it can reasonably be assumed that nearly all residential leases will contain some form of limitations period clause for a personal injury action. Landlord defendants and their counsel also need to be aware of this potential defense and be sure to assert it and move to enforce it at the appropriate time.

What is uncertain at this time is how far this ruling goes in terms of allowing a residential lease provision to limit the time period for bringing a personal injury claim.  Under Langley, it is permissible for a residential lease to limit the time period to bring a personal injury claim from two years to one year, but can a residential lease limit the time period to bring a personal injury claim to less than one year?  The way Langley reads, it seems that a residential lease can limit the time period to bring a personal injury claim to less than a year, considering the appellate court found that all parties in Georgia are free to contract and waive numerous and substantial rights unless prohibited by statute or public policy, and the Court in Langley held that no statute or public policy in Georgia was violated by the lease provision.

It would not be surprising to see landlords attempt to go even further with an attempt to limit the time period to bring legal claims against the apartment complex to less than a year, which will surely spur new litigation to determine how much landlords can limit the time period to bring legal claims against them.

It will be interesting to see how Langley will square with O.C.G.A. § 9-3-99, which tolls the limitations period for tort claims brought by victims of crime until the prosecution of the crime is final, or until six years has passed, whichever is sooner.  This statute will be at issue when a residential lease limits the time period to bring personal injury claim and the resident was a victim of a violent crime and sues the apartment complex for negligent security.  Litigation surrounding this legal issue will most likely follow in the future.

In sum, this ruling by the Georgia Court of Appeals is a win for residential landlords seeking to minimize their exposure to lawsuits from residents.  However, whether it survives challenge at the Georgia Supreme Court will be worth watching.