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Georgia Supreme Court Revives Bus Accident Lawsuit

While personal injury cases arising from motor vehicle accidents tend to involve cars or trucks, it is important not to overlook other kinds of vehicles such as buses. For instance, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported last December that there were “more than 700 accidents” involving school buses in Metro Atlanta during 2016–a rate of nearly two per day. These accidents resulted in over 300 injuries to students and teachers.

Croy v. Whitfield County

Bus operators, including school districts and public transit agencies, can be held liable for damages when driver negligence leads to passenger injury. Personal injury lawsuits against public agencies in Georgia are often complicated by additional notification requirements. Since the State of Georgia and its political subdivisions are normally immune from personal injury claims, plaintiffs must strictly comply with these requirements just to have their cases heard.

Consider this recent decision from the Georgia Supreme Court. The now-deceased plaintiff in this case was injured while riding on a Whitfield County Transit Services bus. The accident occurred in January of 2012. Since the bus was owned and operated by Whitfield County, Georgia law required the plaintiff to “present” his personal injury claim to the county within 12 months of the date of the accident, or in this case no later than January of 2013.

About six months after the accident, in June of 2012, the plaintiff’s personal injury attorney sent a letter to the County Attorney for Whitfield County, informing him of his client’s claim. The County Attorney later discussed the plaintiff’s claim with the county’s Board of Commissioners, but it is not clear whether he ever gave the Board the actual letter from the plaintiff’s attorney.

Now, you might assume that presenting a claim to the County Attorney would comply with the state’s notice requirement. When the plaintiff later filed his personal injury lawsuit, however, Whitfield County argued the June 2012 letter was “not a proper presentment” because the County Attorney was not an actual county employee. Rather, he was a lawyer in private practice  retained by the Board to perform legal services as the County Attorney.

This might sound like a ridiculous distinction, but both the trial court and the Georgia Court of Appeals bought the County’s argument and dismissed the case. (By this time, the plaintiff had passed away and his estate had continued the lawsuit.) The Georgia Supreme Court, in a bout of common sense, reversed the lower courts and reinstated the estate’s lawsuit.

As the Supreme Court explained, Georgia’s “presentment” law has been on the books for 150 years. But the Court had never previously considered whether a claim had to be presented directly to the governing board of a county. In prior cases, the Court of Appeals has said it was acceptable to present a claim to “departments or officers of county governments.” This includes a County Attorney, who is a legal officer appointed by a county’s Board of Commissioners.

But in this case, the Court of Appeals drew an artificial distinction between an “inside and outside” county attorney, i.e. an attorney who is a county employee versus outside counsel hired to perform the same duties. Indeed, the Supreme Court noted that the Court of Appeals “cited no authority for this distinction.” The lower court’s decision was therefore “untenable,” and the estate could proceed with its lawsuit.