Court of Appeals: Chatham Area Transit Not Protected Against Lawsuits from Victims of 2016 Savannah Dock Collapse

On November 19, 2016, a dock attached to a ferry terminal in Savannah collapsed, sending more than 60 people into the water, according to news reports at the time. A number of these people sustained serious injuries, and a Savannah firefighter died after suffering a dissecting aneurysm while participating in rescue activities.

Chatham Area Transit v. Brantley

As you might expect, there was a substantial legal fallout to the deck collapse. Several victims filed personal injury lawsuits against both the City of Savannah and Chatham Area Transit (CAT), which owned the dock. In early 2018, the City moved to dismiss the lawsuits, arguing it was protected by both sovereign immunity and Georgia’s Recreational Property Act (RPA). CAT subsequently argued it was also protected from suit under the RPA.

A trial judge rejected all of these immunity claims. In a decision issued on September 23, 2019, Chatham Area Transit v. Brantley, the Georgia Court of Appeals held the City was, in fact, immune from suit. The appeals court said the case against CAT could still proceed.

With respect to the City, the Court of Appeals said sovereign immunity prevented any lawsuit against Savannah except for “neglect to perform or improper or unskillful performance of [the City’s] ministerial duties.” Such duties include maintaining city streets “in a reasonably safe condition for travel.” And in the context of these cases, a public road includes the dock that collapsed.

That said, the City can only be held liable if it had actual or constructive notice of a possible defect in the dock. Here, although the plaintiffs did present a report from an engineer retained by the federal government to study the collapsed dock, the report did not identify “any specific defect with the ramp.” As a result, the appeals court said, sovereign immunity still protected the City.

As for CAT, the Court of Appeals said that was a different matter. CAT argued it had immunity under the RPA, which is a state law that absolves an “owner of land” from ordinary negligence when they allow members of the public to use their property “for recreational purposes” and without charge.

The flaw with this defense, the appeals court said, was that CAT was not the “owner” of the dock. In fact, CAT had been using a City-owned dock at the time of the 2016 accident as its “usual dock underwent repairs.” CAT never paid the City for the use of its dock, and there was no evidence it assumed responsibility for any maintenance or upkeep.

It should be noted the trial court denied CAT’s immunity under the RPA for a slightly different reason than the Court of Appeals. The trial judge concluded that CAT could not establish the dock was in use for “recreational” purposes, which is also a condition of RPA immunity. The appeals court did not address this issue, as it opted to rely on CAT’s non-owner status instead.