Supreme Court of Georgia to Review Whether Sovereign Immunity Applies in Negligence Suit Against City of Atlanta

It 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.

Under the common law, sovereign immunity doctrine provided an almost absolute shield from tort liability to state governments. However, in light of the ostensible unreasonableness of immunity under almost all circumstances, the federal government as well as state governments began to waive their immunity through legislation. However, neither the federal nor state governments completely eliminated their sovereign immunity. Rather, governments elected only to partially waive their immunity and retained the privilege where they saw fit. Mitcham deals with one such statutory waiver of immunity. Under Georgia law, “[m]unicipal corporations shall not be liable for failure to perform or for errors in performing their legislative or judicial powers. For neglect to perform or improper or unskillful performance of their ministerial duties, they shall be liable.” OCGA § 36-33-1. Accordingly, the City of Atlanta, a municipal corporation, can only be liable if the police were neglectful in performing what amounted to a ministerial duty.
In their decision, the Georgia Court of Appeals concluded that providing medical care to inmates was a function that did not implicate discretion and was thus ministerial in nature. Therefore, sovereign immunity should not apply. However, one concurring justice noted the flaws that may exist in the reasoning of the majority opinion. Specifically, the concurring justice mentioned that the majority opinion failed to differentiate case law and statutory provisions regarding state rather than municipal liability and, further, the court’s reliance on case law related to official rather than sovereign immunity. Nonetheless, this justice also concurred in the result that sovereign immunity should not apply.
Although the trial and appellate courts were in agreement, at least with respect to the ultimate question of whether immunity should apply, the Supreme Court of Georgia has nonetheless elected to rule on the issue. The question before the court is of great importance to numerous current and potential litigants who have or will find themselves injured by the act of a government agent. Although sovereign immunity makes it difficult for one to recover when he or she is injured as a result of government action, recovery is not impossible. If you’ve been seriously injured as a result of government conduct or the conduct of another, the Atlanta injury lawyers at the Law Office of Terrence R. Bethune have considerable experience with obtaining recovery for injured plaintiffs, regardless of the defendant, and they are prepared to hear your case. For a free consultation, click here or call 1-800-487-8669.

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