Governmental immunity can be a confusing concept under Georgia law. As illustrated in past cases on this blog, some government officers and agencies can be found immune from litigation, while others may fall in special exceptions that prevent them from being held liable in a lawsuit. A recent Georgia car accident case before the Georgia Court of Appeals looks at how Georgia’s governmental immunity doctrines apply to county sheriffs in the state.
In this case, S.D. was driving in Calhoun, Georgia when he attempted to make a left turn at a local intersection. S.D. waited for all oncoming traffic before beginning his turn, but, as he turned, a local sheriff, R.M., attempted to pass S.D. on his left hand side. S.D.’s vehicle ran into R.M., and R.M.’s vehicle collided with S.D.’s driver’s side door. Because of the accident, S.D. continued to suffer from lingering back, neck, and leg pain. Importantly, at the time of the accident, R.M. was driving a county-owned sheriff’s vehicle on his way to business at the sheriff’s office evidence room.
S.D. immediately sued R.M. and Gordon County for the injuries he experienced. He alleged that R.M. had negligently driven his vehicle and that Gordon County was vicariously liable for R.M.’s actions. S.D.’s claims against the County were dismissed due to a failure to provide them with adequate notice, and R.M. moved for summary judgment on the claims against him, arguing that he had governmental immunity because he was in the course of his employment when the accident occurred. The trial court ultimately agreed that R.M. was entitled to governmental immunity and dismissed the claims against him. S.D. appealed.
On appeal, S.D. argued that Georgia’s governmental immunity provision did not apply to the county sheriff’s office, and therefore R.M. was not entitled to immunity. Under Georgia statute 36-92-3, local government officers or employees who commit torts involving a work motor vehicle while in the performance of their job are immune from lawsuits. S.D. argued that since sheriff’s offices are not listed within the definition of local government officers, these immunity provisions don’t apply.
The Court of Appeals disagreed. It held that Georgia’s immunity statutes should not be construed so narrowly. Although the statute did not list sheriff’s offices explicitly within the definition of local government entities, the entities identified within the statute were not exhaustive. Instead, the court found that county sheriffs clearly perform governmental services and should be considered local government entities. Since they are local governmental entities, sheriffs are themselves local government officers.
On this basis, and the fact that R.M. was performing work as a county sheriff when the accident occurred, the Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s decision to dismiss the claims against R.M., which ended S.D.’s case entirely.
This case makes clear that there are many different factors that must apply in order for governmental immunity to bar a claim, but when they do, it is very difficult to sustain a claim against a governmental employee. When the individual does work for a local governmental entity and was acting in the performance of his or her work duties, any accident that occurs because of the individual is unlikely to give rise to a claim for civil liability, at least against the officer himself or herself.
Before going through the time and expense of filing a lawsuit, it is worth making certain that qualified immunity isn’t going to unexpectedly end your claim. If you are uncertain about whether qualified immunity might affect your claims, or whether there are other defendants you might consider suing instead, Atlanta car accident attorney Stephen M. Ozcomert can help. Call us today at (404) 370-1000 to schedule a free initial consultation, or you can reach us through our website.
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