Generally, government entities have sovereign immunity against an Atlanta car accident lawsuit, unless they’ve specifically waived that immunity. In a recent Georgia appellate decision, a couple sued the Georgia Department of Transportation for negligence stemming from a crash in which the wife and kids suffered serious injuries. In a motion to dismiss, the Department argued it had sovereign immunity. The lower court denied the motion and the Department appealed.
The case arose when the wife and two kids were driving down State Route 11. As the wife came to the intersection, a vehicle driving north was waiting in a passing lane to turn left onto a road that ran perpendicular. A third vehicle driving north swerved to avoid striking the left-turning vehicle and instead hit the wife’s car causing the three occupants to suffer serious injuries.
The wife and her husband sued the Department under the Georgia Tort Claims Act, claiming that it was negligent in the maintenance, building, and design of State Route 11 at its intersection with the other road. They claimed the Department had failed to give the minimum mandated sight distance for drivers coming to the intersection, failed to post enough proper speed warnings, and failed to slope the shoulder of Route 11 properly. They attached an engineer’s affidavit to their complaint. Among other things, the affidavit claimed the Department knew of the history of accidents, but hadn’t fixed the issue.
The Department moved to dismiss the complaint on a number of grounds including that the plaintiff’s claims were forbidden because they implicated the discretionary function and design exceptions to the state’s waiver of sovereign immunity under OCGA § 50-21-24(2). The lower court denied the Department’s motion.
The appellate court reasoned that the party who benefits from a waiver of sovereign immunity needs to establish there was a waiver. The lower court had concluded the expert witness affidavit allowed the plaintiffs to meet this burden. The appellate court found that the lower court had erred in evaluating the motion to dismiss. First, it reasoned that the lower court had improperly based its ruling on the standard used for purposes of determining a motion to dismiss a complaint for professional malpractice. It also found the lower court had improperly shifted the burden of proof to the Department when it ruled the Department hadn’t set out any testimonial evidence in rebuttal. The burden was on the couple to show the Department’s actions were excepted from sovereign immunity. They needed to submit expert testimony or other evidence to demonstrate the design or plan of the road wasn’t put together in substantial compliance with generally accepted design or engineering standards at the time the plan was put together.
The lower court was also supposed to consider the Department’s motion to dismiss under a preponderance of the evidence standard with the burden of showing the waiver of sovereign immunity on the plaintiffs. The appellate court determined that the lower court’s ruling on the motion to dismiss was made based on improper legal standards, and so it vacated the order. The case was sent back to the lower court for reconsideration using proper standards.
If you were injured in a car accident on an Atlanta road and suspect it was because of a road defect, you should talk to seasoned personal injury attorney Stephen M. Ozcomert. Cases against the government can be challenging, and it’s important to retain a knowledgeable attorney. Mr. Ozcomert has more than 20 years of experience. Call us at (404) 370-1000 or contact us via our website.