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High-speed police chases make for exciting footage on local newscasts. They also pose a very real danger to the general public. When law enforcement officials make the decision to initiate or continue a chase, they must be mindful of other motorists on the road. If police recklessness leads to the injury or death of an innocent party, the government may be held accountable in court.

Wingler v. White

This is not to say that every personal injury claim arising from a police chase will be upheld in court. To the contrary, Georgia law sets strict limits on which such lawsuits may be heard. In order to get around the “sovereign immunity” of the state and its municipalities, Georgia courts have said that a victim must prove that his or her losses arose from the “negligent use” of a police vehicle where the officers “acted with reckless disregard for proper law enforcement procedures in pursuing a fleeing suspect.”

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Punitive damages are an extraordinary remedy available in only certain personal injury cases. Under Georgia law, a plaintiff can only seek punitive damages if the evidence shows the defendant’s actions demonstrated “willful misconduct, malice, fraud, wantonness, oppression, or that entire want of care which would raise the presumption of conscious indifference to consequences.” Since punitive damages are meant to deter outrageous conduct such as drunk driving, rather than compensate the victim for his or her injuries, it is not enough to prove simple or gross negligence on the part of the defendant.

Amoateng v. Nickerson

In the context of a car accident, a driver is considered negligent “per se”–i.e., as a matter of law–if he or she fails to follow the rules of the road. For example, if a driver runs a red light and hits another vehicle in the intersection, that is a case of negligence per se. This means the driver of the other car would be entitled to compensatory damages for his or her injuries.

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All Georgia motorists have a duty to obey the rules of the road and drive with care. Even when a driver does everything by the book, an accident may still occur due to someone else’s negligence or due to a public nuisance created by improper design or maintenance of the roadway. In the latter scenario, the local government responsible for operating the roadway may be liable for personal injuries sustained by an accident victim.

Mayor and Alderman of City of Savannah v. Herrera

Normally Georgia cities and municipalities are protected from civil lawsuits by sovereign immunity. The state legislature has waived this immunity in cases in which a local government fails to correct a known roadway defect. As explained by the Georgia Court of Appeals in a 2005 decision, “municipalities generally have a ministerial duty to keep their streets in repair, and they are liable for injuries resulting from defects after actual notice, or after the defect has existed for a sufficient length of time for notice to be inferred.” This includes defects arising from both man-made and natural causes.

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Following any kind of car accident, it is a good practice to notify your insurance company as soon as possible. Even if you do not think you will need to utilize your insurance coverage, many policies contain language requiring prompt notification. This means that if you fail to give notice–even if you did not initially believe it was necessary–your insurance company may later reject a claim for benefits under the policy.

Silva v. Liberty Mutual Fire Insurance Company

Georgia is an “at-fault” state when it comes to motor vehicle accident liability; that is to say, the negligent driver is responsible for any damages. However, your own insurance policy may still come into play if the negligent driver lacks sufficient insurance to pay for all of the damages, or in cases in which the driver is never identified, such as in a hit-and-run accident. By law, all Georgia insurance companies must offer uninsured motorist (UM) coverage to address such contingencies.

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Any Georgia business that opens its doors to the public must take care to keep its premises in reasonably safe condition. This is especially important when dealing with young children, who are more prone to accidents than adults. While it may not be possible to completely child-proof a business establishment in the same manner as a home, business proprietors must still strive to identify and eliminate obvious hazards that could seriously injure or kill an innocent child.

Holt v. Marriott International, Inc.

On November 15, two parents filed a lawsuit in Fulton County Superior Court alleging negligence on the part of multiple defendants in the tragic death of their 5-year-old son. The lead defendants own and operate a popular rotating restaurant in downtown Atlanta. One day this past April, the plaintiffs and their two small children, including the victim, had lunch at this restaurant, which is actually built on a platform that rotates around a stationary core, affording patrons a 360-degree view of Atlanta.

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In a premises liability case, a defendant may be held responsible for failing to post proper warning signs regarding a hazard on the property, such as a “wet floor” sign near a puddle of water. These types of slip and fall cases are highly fact-specific, however, and what constitutes an inadequate warning in one case may be deemed insufficient to prove the defendant’s liability in another case.

Vineyard Industries, Inc. v. Bailey

Here is an example in which the defendant was held liable. This is a recent Georgia slip and fall case involving a popular fast food restaurant. The victim is a minor who went to the defendant’s restaurant one morning for breakfast. After placing her order, she used the restroom. Upon exiting the restroom, she passed the restaurant’s drink machine, where she slipped and fell on the wet floor.

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Georgia’s mental health system has come under increasing public and regulatory scrutiny in recent years. Too many people suffering from serious mental illness do not receive adequate treatment. While that is tragic in and of itself, the system’s failures are compounded when these untreated patients injure or even kill innocent third parties.

Curles v. Psychiatric Solutions, Inc.

The Georgia Court of Appeals recently considered a mental health care facility’s potential civil liability in one such case. A woman with a long history of “psychotic breaks” was committed to a private psychiatric facility on three separate occasions. Approximately two weeks after the facility discharged her for the third time, the woman killed her grandmother and another man.

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Car accidents are often the result of a driver failing to keep a proper lookout for hazards in the road. As a driver, you should never assume the road in front of you is clear. If you do get into an accident caused by another who did not keep his or her eyes on the road, you may have a personal injury claim for damages.

Kelly v. Fann

Georgia courts never assume that a driver failed to keep a lookout. The legal burden is on the plaintiff to establish, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the defendant ignored a legal duty. This means, for instance, the plaintiff must show that the defendant ignored the rules of the road or failed to exercise appropriate caution when confronting a known hazard. A judge may dismiss a car accident lawsuit on summary judgment if the plaintiff cannot produce sufficient evidence from which a jury can find negligence.

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Personal injury claims based on premises liability under Georgia law generally revolve around two questions. First, did the property owner have knowledge of the hazard that caused the plaintiff’s injuries? Second, did the plaintiff have “equal or superior” knowledge of the same hazard, thereby absolving the defendant of any potential liability?

Stewart v. Brown

Here is a simple illustration of how courts examine these questions in practice. This is taken from a recent decision by the Georgia Court of Appeals. In this case, a trial judge granted summary judgment to the defendant in a slip-and-fall case. The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court and returned the case for trial on the merits.

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Car accidents are not always the result of driver negligence or error. Sometimes the road is to blame. When state and local authorities fail to properly correct a hazardous roadway condition or are negligent in the design of the road itself, it may be possible for an injured driver to recover damages.

Just becomes something is legally possible does not mean that it is easy. In fact, the Georgia Court of Appeals recently threw out two personal injury lawsuits arising from alleged road defects. In both cases the appeals court adhered to a much stricter interpretation of the law than the trial courts, which thought the plaintiff’s claims had some merit.

The Georgia Department of Transportation v. Balamo