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Suing a Non-Georgia Resident Following a Car Accident

Many Georgia car accidents involve motorists from other states. If you are injured by a nonresident driver’s negligence, you can still seek to recover damages through the Georgia courts. It is important to understand that there are special conditions imposed by Georgia law in such cases. You must make every effort to locate the out-of-state defendant and ensure he or she is properly served with a copy of your lawsuit. As a recent Georgia Court of Appeals decision illustrates, these requirements are not optional.

Covault v. Harris

The plaintiff in this case was involved in a two-car accident in Fulton County, Georgia. The plaintiff and the defendant were traveling towards the same intersection when, according to the plaintiff, the defendant “failed to maintain his lane and struck [the plaintiff’s] vehicle.” According to a police report taken at the scene of the accident, the defendant was a resident of Kentucky driving a rental car. The plaintiff subsequently learned the defendant’s home address by reviewing Kentucky’s voter registration records.

Georgia has a two-year statute of limitations for personal injury lawsuits. The accident here took place in February 2013. In late January 2015, the plaintiff filed his lawsuit against the defendant in Georgia state court. Because the defendant lived in Kentucky, the plaintiff’s lawsuit was subject to the Georgia Nonresident Motorist Act (NRMA). Among other things, the NRMA required the plaintiff to serve his lawsuit on the Georgia Secretary of State. The plaintiff did so. The plaintiff was also required to personally serve the defendant a copy of the lawsuit “by registered or certified mail or statutory overnight delivery,” assuming the plaintiff knew the defendant’s address.

Here, the plaintiff attempted to serve the defendant at two of his prior addresses, but not the one listed on his voter registration, which was his current address. It was not until June 2015 that the plaintiff actually sent a copy of the lawsuit by certified mail to the defendant’s current address. But by then, it was too late.

The trial court granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit due to lack of “personal jurisdiction.” In other words, because the plaintiff did not fully comply with the NRMA’s service requirements until June 2015—four months after the two-year statute of limitations expired—the Georgia court could not legally exercise jurisdiction over the defendant. The plaintiff appealed.

The Court of Appeals was no kinder to the plaintiff’s case. A three-judge panel unanimously affirmed the trial court. The appeals court explained that “[p]ersonal service is an area of the law where the letter of the law must be complied with strictly.” There was no question the plaintiff failed to complete personal service on the defendant’s home address before the statute of limitations expired. “Accordingly,” the Court of Appeals said, “this Court has no choice except to honor the trial court’s decision to dismiss this action for failure to comply with the NMRA.”