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County Police Officer Not Liable for Fatal Horse-Car Collision

Animal control is an often overlooked aspect of law enforcement. Under Georgia law, sheriffs and other local law enforcement officers have a duty “to impound livestock found to be running at large or straying.” But, what happens when a law enforcement officer’s failure to perform this duty leads to the serious injury or death of a human being? The Georgia Court of Appeals recently had to answer this question.

Williams v. Pauley

This tragic case began when a horse strayed onto Highway 27 in Floyd County early one morning. A 911 operator received a call regarding the horse and dispatched a Floyd County police officer to investigate. The officer arrived at the scene and located the horse on the highway’s median. He followed the horse in his police vehicle for a few minutes before the animal “took off.” The officer then approached the horse on foot and gained a tentative hold. Still on the median, the officer walked the horse back towards his police vehicle, where the officer contacted his supervisor on the radio, seeking further direction on how to control the animal.

The supervisor instructed the officer to lead the horse off the median and off the roadway. The officer did so, but the horse subsequently followed the officer as he returned to his vehicle. The officer then went to a nearby gas station to try and obtain a rope or something else to help him control the horse. During this time, the horse ran back out onto the road, colliding with a vehicle and killing the driver inside.

The driver’s estate filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the officer, alleging his negligence in failing to remove the horse from the highway caused the fatal accident. The officer moved for summary judgment, arguing he was entitled to official immunity from suit as the result of his actions. The trial court denied the motion, but a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals unanimously reversed.

Presiding Judge Gary Blaylock Andrews, writing for the appeals panel, said the officer’s actions on the morning of the accident were discretionary, not ministerial. This is an essential distinction under Georgia law. Law enforcement officers generally have immunity for discretionary acts; that is, actions requiring the exercise of individual judgment based on the given facts of a situation. Conversely, officers do not enjoy automatic immunity for “ministerial” acts requiring them to carry out a “simple, specific duty” spelled out by law or regulation.

Although Georgia law does require law enforcement to “impound” stray horses and other livestock, that does not make it a ministerial act. As Judge Andrews noted, the law does not spell out a specific method by which an officer must impound an animal. It was therefore left to the officer’s “deliberation and judgment.” He attempted to comply with the law, and even if he did so negligently, Judge Andrews said he was nevertheless entitled to official immunity. The Court of Appeals therefore granted summary judgment to the officer, dismissing the complaint made by the victim’s estate.