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Georgia Court Explains Proper Service Under Georgia Nonresident Motorist Act

If you are a motorist driving in Georgia, the chances are that you are sharing the road with many drivers who are not Georgia residents.  Drivers may be passing through from other states on a road trip across the Southeast, or they may be visiting for a few days on a vacation.  When this happens, and you are involved in an automobile accident with an out-of-state motorist, it can be more complicated to bring a lawsuit against the other driver for your injuries.  Rather than simply bringing a lawsuit in the district where both you and the other driver reside, Georgia residents who are seeking to sue nonresidents must abide by the Georgia Nonresident Motorist Act (NRMA).  The NRMA dictates how nonresidents can be sued and how they must be notified of any pending lawsuit.  A recent case before the Court of Appeals of Georgia makes clear that proper notice of suit to out-of-state residents is imperative to the success of a lawsuit against such individuals.

In Covault v. Harris, Mr. Covault was involved in an accident in Fulton County, Georgia. The other driver, Mr. Harris, was a resident of Kentucky at the time and was driving a rental car.  After the accident, police reported his address as 5406 Heafer Farm Lane.  Almost two years later, Mr. Covault decided to file a complaint against Mr. Harris for injuries resulting from the accident and uncovered the Heafer Farm Lane address.  Through a private investigator, he determined that Mr. Harris was still living at the address. He also uncovered several other addresses for Mr. Harris, including an address on Fernfield Drive.  For unclear reasons, rather than serve Mr. Harris at the Heafer Farm Lane address, Mr. Covault chose to serve him at the Fernfield Drive location. Although he sent the complaint and summons to the Fernfield Drive address, they were never claimed.  Mr. Covault then went on to serve the Georgia Secretary of State, as required under the NRMA.  Shortly thereafter, the statute of limitations on Mr. Covault’s complaint expired.

Mr. Harris eventually learned of the lawsuit and filed a special appearance in which he argued that Mr. Covault’s complaint had to be dismissed because he did not properly serve Mr. Harris within the two-year statute of limitations.  Mr. Harris contended that Mr. Covault was required to take all reasonable measures to properly serve Mr. Harris, and, since he knew Mr. Harris lived at the Heafer Farm Lane address but did not serve him at that address, he had not complied with the service requirements of the statute. The trial court agreed and affirmed the motion to dismiss. Mr. Covault appealed.

On appeal, Mr. Covault argued that he sufficiently complied with the NRMA when he sent his complaint to the Fernfield Drive address. The court of appeals disagreed. It found that the NRMA required a plaintiff to serve a nonresident by registered or certified mail to the address where he was known to live and to provide a return receipt and affidavit of compliance attesting that he had done so.  Here, although Mr. Covault knew that Mr. Harris lived at the Heafer Farm Lane address, he did not attempt to serve him at that address. The court concluded that this was in violation of the NRMA and that proper service of process was not completed before Mr. Covault’s statute of limitations expired.

If you are a plaintiff in Georgia who has been injured in a car accident, and you are considering a lawsuit, this case highlights two very important factors that you must consider when preparing your case:  where is the defendant located, and what is the statute of limitations? If the defendant is located out of state, the NRMA will require you to undertake additional actions before filing your case, and, if you wait too long, this may put you in jeopardy of missing the statute of limitations deadline. Stephen M. Ozcomert has over 20 years of experience handling car accident cases, representing individuals who have been injured as a result of another person’s negligent driving in Atlanta and throughout Georgia, and he can assist you in making sure you meet all service of process requirements. Call us today at (404)-370-1000 to schedule your free initial consultation, or you can reach us through our website.

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