In just about every city there are certain places known to host dangerous (and illegal) activities. City officials are often aware of the threats posed by such places but fail to take appropriate action to protect the public. If someone is injured or killed as the result of these public hazards, however, can the city itself be held legally responsible?
City of Albany v. Stanford
In 2016, a Dougherty County jury answered “yes” to this question. The specific context was the horrific 2010 murder of a 20-year-old man at an illegal nightclub in Albany. The victim, who was from Butts County, was visiting his aunt in Albany at the time. Some friends took him to a local recording studio known as Brick City.
Although licensed to hold “listening events,” Brick City effectively operated as a nightclub, according to the Macon Telegraph, and local police conducted a raid in 2008 that uncovered “underage drinking, drugs, weapons and alcohol being served without a permit.” Even after multiple police raids and more than 40 reports of “shootings, aggravated assaults, robberies and other crimes ” at the club, Macon officials declined to revoke Brick City’s business license. The official reason given was that the local district attorney “decided to further investigate possible criminal activity occurring at the business.”
Unfortunately, the victim in this case was unaware of Brick City’s reputation, and that ignorance proved costly. During what local media reports described as a “brawl” around 5:30 a.m., a gunman murdered the victim outside the illegal nightclub. Two weeks later, city officials finally revoked Brick City’s business license.
The victim’s family subsequently sued the City of Albany. Essentially, the lawsuit accused the city of negligence in failing to act sooner to shut down Brick City. The jury agreed with the family and returned a verdict of $15.2 million, apportioning 70% of fault for the victim’s death to the City, which was ordered to pay $10.64 million.
The Court of Appeals, however, threw out the entire verdict. It held that the City could not be held liable for the victim’s death because of “sovereign immunity.” This is a legal principle dating back to colonial times that basically holds that a state or municipality cannot be tried in its own courts without its consent. While Georgia does waive sovereign immunity for a city’s “neglect to perform or for improper or unskillful performance of their ministerial duties,” that does not apply to “governmental” functions involving the exercise of discretion.
In plain terms, the Court of Appeals said the City of Albany’s decision not to revoke Brick City’s business license prior to the victim’s murder was an exercise of discretionary “police power.” Under Georgia law, the Court said you cannot sue a city over such judgment calls. The City is therefore “protected from suit,” notwithstanding the jury’s verdict.