As we have previously discussed on this website, when automobile accidents involve state actors, such as during a police car chase, governmental agencies may be immune from liability under the doctrine of sovereign immunity. However, Georgia’s doctrine of sovereign immunity is not absolute. Instead, under Georgia’s Tort Claims Act, state agencies and employees acting within the scope of their official employment may, in limited circumstances, have their sovereign immunity waived. A recent case before the Georgia Court of Appeals looks at whether a waiver of sovereign immunity applies to a state response to an out-of-control wildfire.
In Grant v. Georgia Forestry Commission, Ms. Grant sued the Georgia Forestry Commission (GFC) and the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) for the death of her husband in an automobile collision. Her husband had collided with a tractor trailer while on a state highway. At the time, there was limited to no visibility on the highway, due to a combination of smoke and fog. The smoke was the result of a controlled burn authorized by the GFC that had gotten out of control. It quickly spread, leading to abnormal amounts of smoke on the highway and eventually causing several automobile accidents. Ms. Grant sued the agencies for wrongful death, alleging that they were negligent in their handling of the burn and the smoke.
At trial, the trial court granted the government agencies’ motions to dismiss on the ground that they were protected from liability due to sovereign immunity. On appeal, Ms. Grant argued that this was in error because sovereign immunity was waived. Specifically, Ms. Grant alleged that the GFC was negligent because it failed to notify the Georgia State Patrol (GSP) of the potentially dangerous conditions resulting from the fire, and it failed to coordinate with GDOT on the placement of signs to warn drivers of the hazardous conditions. Finally, she alleged that the GFC was also negligent in failing to advise the GSP that it would be conducting a controlled burn near the highway.
The appellate court noted that, under Georgia law, Georgia agencies are protected from liability for losses arising from methods of fire control and protection. However, it also noted that agencies are only immune from liability if the negligence that occurred resulted from an official policy itself. If a state employee implemented the policy in a negligent manner, the doctrine of sovereign immunity is waived, and the agency may be held liable.
Here, the appellate court noted that Georgia state policies only required the GFC to notify the GSP of potentially hazardous conditions that were causing current visibility issues, rather than conditions that might possibly cause issues in the future. Since the evidence showed that the GFC was not aware of the visibility issues until after Ms. Grant’s husband was killed, the court held that the GFC had not been negligent in informing the GSP under its policies because it was not under a duty to inform at the time. Likewise, the GFC also was not required to coordinate with GDOT under its policies until it was already aware of hazardous conditions. Again, since it was not aware of the conditions at the time of the accident, there was no negligent implementation of the policy.
However, the court held that the GFC was under a duty to notify the GSP of its intention to conduct a controlled burn near the highway, and the record was unclear as to whether it had met this obligation. The court further determined that if the GFC had failed to notify the GSP of the burn, this would have been negligent conduct in violation of state policies and a waiver of sovereign immunity. Accordingly, the court reversed the motion to dismiss as to this claim and remanded the case for further proceedings.
Sovereign immunity in Georgia insulates many state agencies and employees from liability for accidents or negligence that may occur on their watch. However, exceptions are applicable in some cases. An experienced car accident attorney who is familiar with Georgia law will be able to help you assess the viability of your claim against the State. Stephen M. Ozcomert is an injury attorney with over 20 years of experience handling car accident cases, representing individuals who have been harmed as a result of another party’s negligence in Atlanta and throughout Georgia. 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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