The Georgia Supreme Court, in DeLoach v. Elliot, S11A0469, 11 FCDR 1501 (5/27/11), issued an opinion that will make suing government entities for personal injuries more difficult. In this case, a City of Waynesboro police officer, while on duty, drove his cruiser into the back of an automobile. The driver of the automobile was injured and sued the police officer in his individual capacity and the City of Waynesboro for negligence.
The trial court dismissed the lawsuit because the driver failed to send the City of Waynesboro an ante litem notice within six months of the accident. [“Ante litem” is a Latin term meaning “before litigation.” Some governmental entities, such as, counties, police departments, school systems, and municipalities, require an ante litem notice of an intent to sue them in order to proceed with a lawsuit.] Also, the trial court found that the driver’s lawsuit failed under OCGA Sec. 36-92-3(a). [OCGA Sec. 36-92-3(a) states that, “[a]ny local government officer or employee who commits a tort involving the use of a covered motor vehicle while in the performance of his or her official duties is not subject to lawsuit or liability therefor.”]
The Georgia Supreme Court agreed with trial court and affirmed. The Court noted that OCGA Sec. 36-92-3(a) only applies when a government entity remains liable as part of the lawsuit. In this case, because the victim failed to timely send out an ante litem notice, no claim existed against the local government entity, and, by extension, no claim existed against the individual police officer. The Court compared OCGA Sec. 36-92-3(a) with OCGA Sec. 50-21-25. The latter addresses general tort immunity for state employees. The Court explained that, in cases involving tortious acts covered by OCGA Sec. 50-21-25, Georgia courts have held that state employees cannot be sued individually. See Harry v. Glynn County, 269 Ga. 503, 505, 501 SE.2d 196 (1998). The Court reasoned that OCGA Sec. 36-92-3 et al., created after OCGA Sec. 50-21-25, should be construed similarly to OCGA Sec. 50-21-25. The Court stated, “[t]he legislature intended to foreclose all recovery against municipal employees for torts committed within the scope of employment and involving the use of a covered motor vehicle.” For these reasons, the Georgia Supreme Court held that the accident victim in this case was out-of-luck.
The takeaway: If you’re injured in an automobile accident caused by an employee of a government entity, you need to consult with an attorney as soon as possible. If you wait too long, you may lose your claim.