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Corrections Officer May Be Sued Over Dangerous Lawn Mower

Government employees are not subject to the same standards as members of the general public. As a general rule in Georgia, a state employee enjoys “official immunity” when exercising discretion in the performance of his or her duties. Only when a state employee fails to carry out a specifically mandated “ministerial duty” can an aggrieved party seek damages in court.

Cooley v. Bryant

Recently a divided seven-judge panel of the Georgia Court of Appeals addressed this distinction between ministerial and discretionary acts. The plaintiff in this case is an inmate at a state prison. He suffered serious injuries when he lost control of a lawn mower assigned to him during a work detail. The mower’s “kill switch,” which is supposed to stop the engine in the event of such a loss of control, failed. The plaintiff subsequently sued the corrections officer supervising the work detail for “negligent inspection and negligent maintenance of the lawn mower.”

A trial judge rejected the supervisor’s motion to dismiss based on official immunity. The court held the plaintiff could argue the duty to inspect and maintain the lawnmower was ministerial, not discretionary. The supervisor filed an immediate appeal. By a vote of 5-2, the Court of Appeals upheld the trial judge’s decision on this issue.

Judge William M. Ray, II, writing for the Court of Appeals, noted the evidence presented thus far “shows that a cursory examination of the lawn mower would have revealed that the lawnmower at issue was in need of repair.” There was a factual dispute as to whether the supervisor knew of these issues at the time of the accident. Nonetheless, the supervisor argued his inspection and maintenance of the mower was a “discretionary” act as the Department of Corrections did not have a formal written policy on these subjects. But, Judge Ray said, “there is evidence of an unwritten policy requiring him to take the faulty lawn mower to the maintenance shop for repairs,” if he in fact was aware of the problem. A jury could, then, determine the supervisor violated a ministerial duty if the plaintiff can prove the supervisor knew the lawn mower was broken.

Presiding Judge Gary Blaylock Andrews dissented from Judge Ray’s opinion. Judge Andrews argued the record clearly showed “the alleged negligence involved discretionary action,” which meant the supervisor should receive official immunity. Judge Andrews cited the supervisor’s testimony “he experienced no maintenance problems with the mower at issue” prior to the accident, and he inspected the equipment twice a day even though there was no written policy requiring him to do so. Indeed, Judge Andrews said the absence of a written policy effectively meant any decision the supervisor made regarding equipment maintenance “discretionary.”

Judge Ray, responding to Judge Andrews’ dissent, said that in this case, if the supervisor knew the lawn mower’s kill switch did not work, then he had a ministerial duty to take it in for repairs. Even the supervisor and state officials conceded that without a functional kill switch, the lawn mower “becomes a dangerous piece of machinery.” Judge Ray said the supervisor’s duty was clear at that point: He had to take the lawn mower to a repair shop.