Although personal injury and wrongful death claims are often brought up in the context of negligence–i.e., unintentional but reckless acts–there are situations in which the victim is injured or killed through an intentional criminal act. In such situations, the victim or his or her family can definitely seek damages against the criminal.
What about local law enforcement and private entities that were charged with protecting the public from a particular criminal? Can they also be held liable?
SecureAlert, Inc. v. Boggs
According to a recent Georgia Court of Appeals decision, the answer is apparently “no.” This case centers on the murder of a 34-year-old Albany man in 2014. Three men shot and killed the victim while attempting to rob him.
As it turned out, two of the killers were already out on pretrial bond awaiting trial on unrelated criminal charges. Under the conditions of their court-ordered release, they were supposed to be on “total lock-down house arrest,” which required the killers to wear GPS electronic monitoring ankle bracelets. The local sheriff’s office contracted with private companies–the defendants in this case–to actually provide the equipment and monitoring services.
The defendants were supposed to notify the sheriff if the two men violated their house arrest, i.e. left their home. They apparently failed to do so. On the night in question, the two men left their homes and participated in the fatal robbery of the victim.
The victim’s family subsequently filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the defendants, alleging that their negligence caused the victim’s death. The defendants moved to dismiss, arguing that they were immune from any civil suit under Georgia law. The trial court denied the motion to dismiss, but the Court of Appeals reversed in favor of the defendants.
Immunity in this case comes from Georgia law. Specifically, the Georgia legislature adopted a statute with two key provisions. First, any criminal defendant subject to electronic monitoring is not considered the “agent, employee, or involuntary servant of the county or the electronic pretrial release and monitoring provider when so released.” Second, neither the provider nor the sheriff “shall be civilly liable for the criminal acts” of a defendant on release.
The wrongful death plaintiffs argued this second provision should not be read to excuse monitoring from “all” liability, as that would render the first provision unnecessary. Put another way, if the law actually absolves a monitoring company of all liability, why would it also need a separate declaration that a defendant on release is not an agent of the company?
The Court of Appeals saw no conflict here. The first provision, it explained, applied to vicarious liability, i.e. situations in which a principal is responsible for the negligent acts of an agent. The second provision, in contrast, applies to criminal acts.
More to the point, the Court of Appeals said the legislature was within its rights to “confer seemingly unlimited immunity” on monitoring providers. As a matter of public policy, the Court noted, “allowing private monitoring companies to be exposed to liability for the criminal acts of supervised defendants would affect the cost of the monitoring services.” Accordingly, it dismissed the plaintiffs’ lawsuit on immunity grounds.