Atlanta Injury Lawyer Blog

Articles Posted in Sovereign Immunity

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Interchange sectionThose experienced with the law know that courts are institutions of procedure. Although many associate this exacting adherence to process with the rules to which the parties in litigation must abide, the court itself is also bound to procedural requirements. Indeed, a court’s failure to adhere to necessary process can create as much needless work for litigants as the litigants’ own failures. This dynamic is illustrated in a recent decision from the Georgia Court of Appeals, Gonzalez v. Georgia Department of Transportation, in which the Court of Appeals reversed a trial court for failing to make a decision on a predicate issue before getting to the merits of the case.

This case started with a motor vehicle accident on a section of Interstate 16 in Candler County, Georgia. While navigating in rainy weather, the driver of the vehicle lost control and crashed into a tree. A passenger in the vehicle who was injured as a result of the accident brought suit against the Georgia Department of Transportation, alleging that the driver of the vehicle lost control because the vehicle hydroplaned on a pool of rain water and that the Department of Transportation caused this event by negligently breaching its duty to construct, maintain, and inspect the cross-slope design of Interstate 16 in order to assure that rainwater properly flowed away from the road. In response, the Department of Transportation answered the complaint and then filed two motions.

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photo_6322_20080613Although it’s sensible to believe a city may be held liable to failing to act when such failure results in the injury to one of its citizens, cities are often not as accountable for the injuries of citizens as many may think they are. Issues regarding municipal liability at the center of a recent decision from the Georgia Court of Appeals, City of Atlanta v. Demita, in which the court addressed a somewhat novel question regarding when a municipality may be held liable for maintaining a nuisance in the construction or upkeep of a municipal storm water drainage system.

The alleged nuisance at dispute in this litigation was located on a low-lying stretch of Oakridge Avenue in Atlanta, Georgia. In 2002, the plaintiff in this case purchased a newly constructed home located at this part of Oakridge Avenue. The street is owned and maintained by the city. The home was part of new fill-in construction in the area, and prior to this construction, water would run east to west across the street, which runs north to south. However, following construction, this home and the home across the street are at the thoroughfare’s low point, and water has pooled in the area during the duration of the plaintiff’s occupancy. There is no storm drain, sewer grate, manhole, retention pond, or catch basin on the street into which runoff water can drain. On days of heavy rainfall, water pools above the curb and overflows onto the plaintiff’s property, which has caused the property to sustain erosion, soil saturation, garage and crawlspace flooding, and other damage.

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photo_29313_20131028It is an ordinary impulse to think that the government, state or federal, should be subject to the same rules of accountability as ordinary businesses and citizens when it comes to injuries associated with the conduct of its agents. However, the common law doctrine of sovereign immunity drastically alters the landscape of liability for government actors and limits when a person injured by a government actor may bring suit to recover for his or her injury. On May 19, the Supreme Court of Georgia granted certiorari to review a decision of the Georgia Court of Appeals regarding the applicability of sovereign immunity to the conduct of the Atlanta Police Department.

The decision to be reviewed by the Supreme Court of Georgia, City of Atlanta v. Mitcham (PDF downloadable file), involves the injury of a person being held in custody by the Atlanta Police Department. The plaintiff in this action had been arrested in connection with a hit-and-run accident. While detained, the plaintiff, who suffers from diabetes, became ill and needed to be taken to the hospital. Following treatment, the hospital released the plaintiff back into the custody of the police and informed the police that the plaintiff needed to have his blood sugar regularly checked and to be provided insulin on a consistent schedule. Despite the hospital’s instruction, the police failed to monitor the plaintiff’s blood sugar and regularly provide him with insulin, which resulted in illness and further serious and permanent injury.

Following this episode, the detainee brought suit against the City of Atlanta and George Turner, the Police Chief for the City of Atlanta. The defendants moved to have the case dismissed, arguing that sovereign immunity applied and thus the plaintiff could not recover for the injuries sustained as a result of the police’s negligence. The trial court denied the motion to dismiss and the Georgia Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court decision. Now, following its grant of discretionary review, the Supreme Court of Georgia will weigh in on whether the City of Atlanta can avoid liability.
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