Georgians "waive" Goodbye to the Prospect of Full Compensation in Car Wrecks Caused by Municipalities: Automatic Governmental Immunity Waiver's Interplay With Liability Insurance

JurisdictionUnited States,Federal,Georgia
Publication year2023
CitationVol. 74 No. 2

Georgians "Waive" Goodbye to the Prospect of Full Compensation in Car Wrecks Caused by Municipalities: Automatic Governmental Immunity Waiver's Interplay with Liability Insurance

W. Jackson Latty

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Georgians "Waive" Goodbye to the Prospect of Full Compensation in Car Wrecks Caused by Municipalities: Automatic Governmental Immunity Waiver's Interplay with Liability Insurance

W. Jackson Latty*

I. Introduction

Arguably two of the most axiomatic interests the Georgia legislature must consider when enacting laws are the interests of local governments to carry out public works and individual citizens' abilities to seek full and adequate relief when they have been injured by the wrong of another. For example, although police officers generally enjoy immunity for acts performed in their official capacity, there is also a compelling government interest in allowing individuals to recover for a police officer's negligent or reckless conduct, recoveries which often repay local hospitals or government insurance systems for treatment otherwise covered by taxpayer dollars. These two principles of law are often at odds with one another, which tasks both the legislature and the courts with the difficult—and sometimes seemingly impossible—job of forging a workable compromise.

When considering injuries caused by the negligent or reckless operation of government-owned motor vehicles, one of the most common ways in which this conflict arises, the Georgia legislature has enacted

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various statutes addressing the ability of an individual to recover in such situations. However, given the competing interests at play in these cases, litigation implicating these statutes has sometimes yielded inconsistent results. In Atlantic Specialty Insurance Company v. The City of College Park,1 the Supreme Court of Georgia considered a case interpreting section 36-92-2 of the Official Code of Georgia Annotated.2 In contravention of previous legislation waiving local governmental sovereign immunity only to the extent a local government carried applicable liability insurance, O.C.G.A § 36-92-2 automatically waives a local government's sovereign immunity in automobile collisions up to a discrete sum of $700,000. As further explained, although local governments are still free to purchase liability coverage exceeding the statutory threshold enumerated in O.C.G.A § 36-92-2, insurers may now insert disclaiming language within their insurance policies to limit coverage for automobile collisions to only those amounts set forth in the statute.

II. Factual Background

On January 31, 2016, Dorothy Wright, Cameron Costner, and Layla Partridge (collectively, the Decedents) were passengers in a motor vehicle struck by a stolen vehicle being chased by the City of College Park Police Department.3 The representatives of the Decedents' respective estates filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the City of College Park (the City) in the State Court of Fulton County claiming that the City negligently and recklessly caused the Decedents' deaths. In response, the City claimed sovereign immunity.4

At the time pertinent to the subject collision, the City had a Commercial Liability Insurance policy with Atlantic Specialty Insurance Company (Atlantic Specialty) with a $1,000,000 business auto liability limit and a $4,000,000 excess liability limit.5 The policy also provided that Atlantic Specialty had no duty to pay claims "unless the defenses of sovereign and governmental immunity [were] inapplicable."6 Fearing a potential $5,000,000 exposure, Atlantic Specialty filed a declaratory action against the City in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia to establish that, pursuant to O.C.G.A.

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§ 36-92-2(a)(3),7 the applicable limit of insurance in the underlying lawsuit was $700,000.8 The district court dismissed the action because, among other reasons, the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction.9

Consequently, Atlantic Specialty intervened in the underlying lawsuit between the Decedents' representatives and the City with the limited purpose of determining the applicable limits of the insurance policy in the case.10 Atlantic Specialty filed a motion for partial summary judgment asking the trial court to find as a matter of law that the applicable limit was $700,000.11 The trial court denied Atlantic Specialty's motion and ruled the applicable liability limit was $5,000,000 pursuant to O.C.G.A. § 36-92-2(d)(3), which provides that the statutory sovereign immunity waiver is increased to the extent that commercial liability insurance is purchased in excess of the thresholds set in O.C.G.A. § 36-92-2(a).12

Atlantic Specialty appealed, contending the terms of the policy expressly preserved the City's right to claim sovereign immunity.13 However, the Georgia Court of Appeals found no error in the trial court's decision and affirmed. Atlantic Specialty then appealed to the Supreme Court of Georgia.14

III. Legal Background

A. Sovereign Immunity Under Previous Statutory Scheme

Pursuant to the Georgia Constitution, a municipality's sovereign immunity "can only be waived by an Act of the General Assembly which specifically provides that sovereign immunity is thereby waived and the extent of such waiver."15 Further, the Georgia Constitution provides immunity from suits against officials who may cause injury in the performance of their official duties.16 In recognition of the general

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framework set forth in the Georgia Constitution, the Georgia General Assembly declared that it is public policy of the state for the state and local government to be immune from liability for damages except in instances codified in Chapter 92 of title 33 of the Georgia Code.17

Despite automobile collisions being a foreseeable consequence of the state's ownership and operation of motor vehicles, the Georgia legislature did not expressly waive the government's sovereign immunity for the negligent operation of motor vehicles until 2002.18 Before O.C.G.A. § 36-92-2, a threshold question to determine whether a governmental entity's sovereign immunity had been waived with respect to a car wreck turned on whether the governmental entity had purchased liability insurance.19 Prior to 2002, the 1985 version of O.C.G.A. § 33-24-51 provided that a state entity was "authorized" to purchase liability insurance to cover damages caused by the entity's ownership and operation of motor vehicles.20 Under the 1985 version of the statute, if a governmental entity decided to purchase a commercial automobile liability policy, then sovereign immunity was waived to the extent of the insurance limits purchased.21 Counties and municipalities were allotted discretion to determine whether they would purchase autotomobile liability insurance, and Georgia courts held that sovereign immunity was not waived when uninsured counties and municipalities were subsequently sued for automobile collisions.22 Accordingly, this version of the code often led to inconsistent and sometimes undesirable outcomes in situations in which a county or municipality was uninsured.

In Cameron v. Lang,23 the Supreme Court of Georgia recognized the undesirable outcomes created by the 1985 version of O.C.G.A. § 33-24-51 and called for legislative action to amend the code to reduce the inconsistent outcomes surrounding car wrecks caused by government vehicles. In Cameron, the Supreme Court of Georgia consolidated two appeals from the Georgia Court of Appeals to consider, among other things, when qualified immunity is to be applied in cases involving alleged reckless operation of local government vehicles.24

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In the first case, Williams v. Solomon,25 the plaintiff was driving when his vehicle was struck at an intersection by a police officer in pursuit of a suspect. At the time of the subject collision, neither the City of Savannah nor its respective police department had an insurance policy for the police vehicles. In his complaint, the plaintiff alleged that the defendant-officer was not using the emergency lights or siren on his police car, which constituted a violation of O.C.G.A. § 40-6-626 amounting to reckless disregard for public safety. The defendant-officer argued that regardless of any argument that he was acting recklessly, he was still protected by qualified immunity. The defendant filed for summary judgment on these grounds and the trial court granted the motion.27

On appeal, the plaintiff maintained, among other things, that summary judgment was improper because there were issues of material fact surrounding the defendant-officer's conduct at the time of the subject collision.28 The Georgia Court of Appeals held that summary judgment was proper because there was not a relevant liability insurance in place by the City of Savannah at the time of the collision and O.C.G.A. § 40-6-6 did not expressly waive the defendant's qualified immunity without the presence of such an insurance policy. Accordingly, the Georgia Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's judgment. The plaintiff then appealed to the Supreme Court of Georgia.29

In the second case of the consolidated opinion, Cameron v. Lang, the plaintiff filed a wrongful death suit against the Peach County Sheriff and his deputy after the plaintiff's husband was involved in a head-on collision with a vehicle being pursued by the named deputy.30 Similar to the Williams case, the plaintiff in Cameron alleged that the defendant-deputy acted recklessly within the meaning of O.C.G.A § 40-6-6(d)(2),31 which provides that a pursuing officer shall not be deemed the proximate cause for any injuries sustained due to a vehicle pursuit unless the "law enforcement officer acted with reckless disregard for proper law enforcement procedures."32 However, unlike Williams, the

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Peach County defendants had an automobile liability policy in place that covered the county's police vehicles at the time of the subject collision.33


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