With winter approaching, Georgia drivers need to be careful navigating potentially hazardous road conditions. Although local governments are responsible for most highway maintenance, Georgia law makes it difficult to hold officials responsible for failing to address even life-threatening hazards. The parents of a deceased child tragically learned this lesson recently from the Georgia Court of Appeals.
Jobling v. Shelton
On January 9, 2011, a major snowstorm hit Cobb County, Georgia, dumping upwards of six inches of snow on the area. Cobb County maintains about 2,500 miles of roads, and the County Department of Transportation was responsible for clearing ice and snow from all of them. The Department prioritized roads as “primary” or “secondary” and proceeded to treat all of them over a period of several days.
Five days after the storm, a resident emailed the Department to report ice on a particular secondary road. A few hours later, someone sent a second email to the Department reporting ice on the same road. Forty-one minutes after that email, a car traveling on the road in question “lost traction on ice” and crossed the median and circled into oncoming traffic. The car’s passenger, an 18-year-old Atlanta woman, died as a result of the accident.
The woman’s parents, acting as next-of-kin and executor of their daughter’s estate, sued the Department manager responsible for road maintenance. The parents said the manager “breached his ministerial duty to promptly respond to dangerous conditions caused by inclement weather.” The parents noted the fact the road remained icy five days after the storm, as well as the two emails on the day of the accident informing the Department of the ongoing hazard.
The trial court ultimately dismissed the parents’ lawsuit, citing the manager’s sovereign and official immunity under Georgia law. The Georgia Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court in a November 13 opinion. Judge Carla Wong McMillian, writing for the Court of Appeals, said it was undisputed the manager could not be sued in his “official capacity,” as all state and county employees are immune from lawsuit unless the government expressly waives such immunity.
But the parents argued the manager could still be sued in his “individual capacity,” as he breached a legally mandated duty to clear the road of ice. Judge McMillian, however, said the manager was entitled to “qualified immunity” on this issue, as he acted within his legal discretion to prioritize road maintenance. Public officials generally cannot be sued for an exercise of personal judgment, only a failure to carry out a “simple, absolute, and definite” act.
Here, Judge McMillian explained, the parents conceded the manager had “plainly discretionary” authority to assign road crews as he saw best. And the manager conceded he “had a duty to respond to road hazards in a reasonable fashion as they were brought to his attention.” The problem, he testified, was that he never saw the two emails from the day of the accident reporting icy conditions on the road in question. Had he seen those emails, that may have created a ministerial duty, Judge McMillian said, but as the parents could produce no rebuttal evidence demonstrating the manager had “actual knowledge” of the road conditions prior to their daughter’s accident, their lawsuit could not proceed.