Supreme Court of Georgia Reverses in Case Involving Notice Requirement Under Georgia’s Tort Claim Act

The decision that is the subject of today’s entry, Board of Regents of University System of Georgia v. Myers, was actually discussed in an earlier post. Following our discussion of the Court of Appeals decision, the case was appealed to the Supreme Court of Georgia, which granted the petition for certiorari. Given that the Supreme Court of Georgia has reversed the decision of the Court of Appeals, we think it is appropriate to take another look at this case. Myers addresses how sufficiently a litigant must specify the amount of loss suffered in his or her ex-ante notice of claim to comply with the requirements of O.C.G.A. § 50-21-26 (a)(2).
Prior to passage of the Georgia Tort Claims Act (“GTCA”), tort suits against the state were barred by the doctrine of sovereign immunity. Although the GTCA waived the state’s sovereign immunity to such suits, the state still placed a variety of limitations on the right to sue, including a requirement that the party provide the state with sufficient ex-ante notice of his or her claim prior to bringing legal action. In the current case, the plaintiff was injured on June 28, 2010 after stepping into an unrepaired pothole on the campus of Dalton State College, an institution within the University System of Georgia. The plaintiff received emergency medical treatment the day of her injury and follow-up physical therapy for four months after the incident. She continued to receive medical treatment thereafter because she had not fully recovered from her injury.

On October 11, 2010, counsel for the plaintiff sent a Notice of Claim letter by certified mail, as required by O.C.G.A. § 50-21-26, to the Georgia Department of Administrative Services (“DOAS”) and the University System’s Board of Regents (“Board”). The notice stated that she asserted a claim for negligence based on the unsafe condition of the parking lot, and with respect to the amount of loss, stated, “[the amount of loss] is yet to be determined as [the plaintiff] is still incurring medical bills and does not yet know the full extent of her injury.” After settlement negotiations stalled, the plaintiff formally filed suit on June 20, 2012, but shortly thereafter the Board of Regent moved to dismiss the case, arguing that the plaintiff’s notice of claim failed to sufficiently specify the “amount of the loss claimed,” as required by O.C.G.A. § 50-21-26 (a)(2). The trial court granted the motion to dismiss, but the Court of Appeals of Georgia reversed, holding that the plaintiff’s statement of uncertain damage was sufficient because the value of loss was not readily quantifiable, since the plaintiff was continuing treatment and did not yet know the full extent of damage.
Despite the Court of Appeals’ forgiving view of the facts, the Supreme Court of Georgia reversed, holding that the plaintiff’s statement was insufficient under O.C.G.A. § 50-21-26 (a)(2). The Supreme Court first looked to O.C.G.A. § 50-21-26, which requires that an ex-ante notice of claim identify, “to the extent of the claimant’s knowledge and belief and as may be practicable under the circumstances,” the state government entity whose acts or omissions are asserted as the basis for the claim, the time and place of the occurrence from which the claim arose, the nature and amount of the loss suffered, and the acts or omissions that caused the loss.
The court then noted the stated intent of the GTCA is to balance strict application of the doctrine of sovereign immunity, which may produce “inherently unfair and inequitable results,” against the need for limited “exposure of the state treasury to tort liability.” Norris v. Ga. Dept. of Transp., 268 Ga. 192, 192 (1997). In meeting this balance, the court stated that “strict compliance” with the provisions of the GTCA is necessary. Given that the GTCA states that the identification of the “nature and amount of loss suffered” is limited to the “extent of the claimant’s knowledge and belief as may be practicable under the circumstances,” the court noted that identification of an exact amount wouldn’t always be necessary. However, since the plaintiff in this action could, at the very least, identify those damages that she had already incurred, she failed to strictly comply with the statute by merely stating that she had a yet to be determined amount of damages. In effect, the Supreme Court’s holding requires one to identify, as practicable under the circumstances, all those costs that one’s knowledge and belief would allow at the moment of sending notice, even if he or she cannot fix an exact amount.
Beyond being a harsh result for the plaintiff in this case, the Supreme Court’s ruling serves as a warning for all litigants who hope to assert claims against the state. Indeed, in light of the court’s requirement that potential litigants strictly comply with the statutory ex-ante notice requirements, it is important for anyone considering bringing a tort claim against the state or a municipality for his or her injuries to get the assistance from experienced legal counsel. The Atlanta premises liability attorneys at the Law Office of Terrence R. Bethune have ample experience with litigation involving the GTCA and are prepared to field questions should you find yourself with a possible claim. Feel free to contact us if you would like a free case evaluation.

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