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It is a longstanding rule in Georgia that employers are “vicariously liable” for torts committed by their employees. In other words, if you are hit by a delivery van that runs a red light, you can sue the company that employs that driver for damages. But there is an important caveat to this rule–the driver must have been “acting within the scope of his employment” at the time of the accident. If the driver was actually running a personal errand, even in a company-owned car, then the employer is not legally responsible.

Mannion & Mannion, Inc. v. Mendez

A recent decision from the Georgia Court of Appeals, Mannion & Mannion, Inc. v. Mendez, illustrates what we are talking about. This personal injury case arose from a March 2016 auto accident. A mechanic, one of the defendants here, left his employer’s business to take his lunch break. The mechanic did not have a set lunch time and did not have to “clock out”; he simply told his co-workers he was leaving.

This may sound like a test question from an introduction to philosophy class: If a truck hits two vehicles in succession, one right after the other, is that one accident or two accidents? When it comes to dealing with insurance companies, however, this is not just a hypothetical issue. How the law defines “accident” can significantly affect the award of insurance benefits to accident victims.

Grange Mutual Insurance Company v. Slaughter

The U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta recently confronted this “one accident or two” question in a complex personal injury case, Grange Mutual Insurance Company v. Slaughter, arising from an October 2015 incident. The driver of a dump truck owned by Four Seasons Trucking (FST) illegally crossed a center line and hit two other vehicles in rapid succession.

As a general principle of law, the owner of a property is typically not liable for failing to warn invited guests of hazards that are considered “open and obvious” to any “reasonable person.” In other words, if you see a giant puddle of water in the middle of a store aisle, choose to walk over it, and slip and fall, you may have a difficult time suing the store’s owner for failing to inform you of the danger. All the owner needs to do is point out the hazard–the puddle of water–was open and obvious to any reasonable person who was paying attention to their surroundings.

Carroll v. Carnival Corporation

But, if you will pardon the pun, it is not always obvious when a hazard is “open and obvious.” Judges and juries need to carefully weigh the available evidence in a given case. Even where the danger is ultimately found to be open and obvious, that does not always completely absolve the property owner of liability.

Class actions allow multiple individuals who suffered a common personal injury to file a single lawsuit against a defendant or group of defendants. Typically, the plaintiffs who file the class action decide whether or not to bring their case in state or federal court. But in some cases, the defendants may force the “removal” of a class action from state to federal court.

A 2005 law, the Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA), permits defendants to do this. CAFA provides for removal when there are more than 100 plaintiffs in the class, the amount they seek is more than $5 million, and at least one plaintiff is a resident of a different state than at least one of the defendants. However, removal is not allowed when the class action arises from “an event or occurrence in the State in which the action was filed, and that allegedly resulted in injuries in that State or in States contiguous to that State.”

Spencer v. Specialty Foundry Products Inc.

In July 2019, a woman from Lawrenceville attended her son’s football practice at a local field. The woman walked by the field’s bleachers when she slipped and fell on an uncovered drain. She suffered injuries as a result of this fall and subsequently sued Gwinnett County, which operated the field, and a number of related parties, mostly unidentified county employees. The now-plaintiff alleged that the County’s failure to properly maintain or repair the drain caused her accident.

Gwinnett County, GA, v. Ashby

Gwinnett County promptly moved to dismiss the lawsuit. It cited the longstanding legal principle of “sovereign immunity,” which holds that a person cannot sue the state or any of its subdivisions–such as a county–unless their claims are expressly authorized by the Georgia General Assembly. The County insisted that no such legislative waiver of sovereign immunity applied to the plaintiff’s lawsuit. In response, the plaintiff cited a state law known as the Recreational Property Act (RPA).

In the 1990s, the General Assembly adopted the Georgia Street Gang Terrorism and Prevention Act (GSGTPA). This law gives prosecutors and local governments powerful tools to address “criminal gang activity” in their jurisdictions. The Act also permits victims of gang violence to file personal injury lawsuits for triple damages. The law does not specify the particular types of lawsuits that can be filed, or even who the possible defendants must be, only that the “finder of fact”–i.e., a jury–must first decide if the plaintiff’s action is “consistent with the intent of the General Assembly” when it adopted the GSGTPA.

Star Residential, LLC v. Hernandez

The Georgia Court of Appeals recently addressed the application of the GSGTPA to a personal injury lawsuit, Star Residential, LLC v. Hernandez, brought by a man against the owner and operator of his apartment complex. Specifically, the plaintiff said he was “shot from behind in an unprovoked attack and robbery” committed by three unidentified men. The plaintiff was paralyzed as a result of his gunshot injuries.

As you probably know, if you are injured on the job, your employer must pay you certain medical and wage replacement benefits under Georgia’s workers’ compensation law. Indeed, workers’ compensation provides what is considered an “exclusive remedy” in these situations. That is to say, you cannot file a personal injury lawsuit against your employer so long as it complies with the workers’ compensation law.

The exclusive remedy of workers’ compensation does not apply to potential claims against third parties. For example, if you are driving a company-owned truck on a delivery and get hit by a drunk driver, workers’ compensation does not prevent you from suing that driver. Of course, if you do successfully pursue a personal injury claim against the drunk driver, then your employer may seek to recoup some of the workers’ compensation benefits previously paid to you.

Sprowson v. Villalobos

When you are injured in an accident caused by another driver, you may be entitled to benefits from your own insurer if you have uninsured/underinsured motorist (UM) coverage. Essentially, UM coverage means your insurance company “steps into the shoes” of the negligent driver, who is either an unknown person, lacks insurance altogether, or has coverage that does not fully compensate you for your injuries.

Under Georgia law, an auto insurer must provide UM coverage by default. The insured party is free to reject this coverage in writing. Before 2001, state law only required UM coverage at certain minimum level, although the insured could ask for a higher limit in writing. The General Assembly subsequently amended the UM coverage rules in 2001 and 2008. The 2001 amendment said an insurance company had to offer minimum UM coverage of either $25,000 per person (or $50,000 per accident) or an amount “equal to the liability coverage in the insured’s underlying policy.” In other words, if you purchased more than $25,000/$50,000 in coverage for your regular policy, then by default your insurer would offer you the same amount in UM coverage. If you wished to purchase less in UM coverage, you could do so in writing.

UM coverage under the 2001 rules were known as “reduced by” policies. This meant that the amount of UM coverage you could receive from your insurer was reduced by whatever money you received from the negligent driver’s insurance company. In 2008, the General Assembly amended the law to change the default UM policy from “reduced by” to “added on.” Under this new default, you are entitled to the full amount of UM coverage for any damages that exceed the negligent driver’s policy limits. Again, you can elect to go back to the prior “reduced by” standard, which many drivers do because it has a lower premium.

As a general rule, you cannot directly sue an insurance company for a personal injury caused by someone they insure. In other words, if you are in a car accident caused by a negligent driver, you cannot name that driver’s insurance company as a defendant. Such “direct action” is not permitted under Georgia law.

Daily Underwriters of America v. Williams

But there are exceptions. Georgia law includes two separate provisions that permit direct action against insurance companies that insure motor carriers, i.e. semi-trucks. In a recent decision, Daily Underwriters of America v. Williams, the Georgia Court of Appeals explained how these two provisions can be applied in practice.

In October 2014, a man from McDonough, Georgia, died after his Suzuki motorcycle collided with a Toyota Prius. According to a report from the Henry Herald at the time, the man “was traveling east on Campground Road and the Prius was traveling north on Palmer Road.” The Prius then pulled out onto Campground Road and was “hit by the Suzuki.” At the time, police attributed the accident to “speed and reckless driving” on the part of the motorcyclist.

Clack v. Hasnat

The family of the motorcyclist subsequently filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the driver and owners of the Prius. The case was tried before a jury, which returned a verdict for the defense. The family then unsuccessfully moved for a new trial.

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