Process matters when bringing a personal injury lawsuit. This goes double when the defendant is a state government agency. The Georgia Tort Claims Act (GTCA) governs personal injury lawsuits against the state for torts committed by its employees. Normally any government enjoys “sovereign immunity” from lawsuits in its own courts. The GTCA creates a limited waiver of that immunity provided its requirements are followed to the letter. A recent Georgia Court of Appeals decision illustrates what happens when those requirements are not followed.
Driscoll v. Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia
The GTCA applies to all state agencies, including the University System of Georgia and its member colleges and universities. Four years ago, a van owned by Georgia State University was traveling down an eastbound lane on Interstate 285. A tire flew off the van, crossed the median wall and struck a Hyundai Sonata and another car. The driver of the Sonata was killed.
In February 2011, an attorney for the driver’s estate sent a notice by certified mail to the Georgia Department of Administrative Services’ (DOAS) risk management office. Under the GTCA, such notice is required before anyone files a personal injury lawsuit against a state agency. The estate’s notice specified the name of the victim, the date and the location of the accident, and the nature of her injuries (in this case, “loss of life”). Aside from a brief summary of the accident, there were no additional details and no specific claim for monetary losses.
Over the next several months, the estate and DOAS attempted to negotiate a settlement, to no avail. Finally, in February 2012, the estate sued the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia under the GTCA. The Board immediately filed a motion to dismiss, citing insufficient notice.
Both the trial judge and the Georgia Court of Appeals agreed with the Board that the estate failed to comply with the strict notification requirements of the GTCA. There are six required elements of a GTCA notice. The estate failed to comply with fifth element, which is a statement of the “amount of the loss claimed.” Indeed, as the Court of Appeals noted, the estate “failed to state any amount of loss whatsoever.” This was not an inadvertent omission, the Court explained, but a failure to comply with the clear letter of the law. “Even though the prejudice to the State was arguably minimal in the present case,” Presiding Judge Sara L. Doyle wrote for the Court of Appeals, “the [Georgia] Legislature plainly listed the required elements of [a GTCA] notice, and this Court is not authorized to ignore an element that is wholly absent” from said notice.
Judge Doyle noted that while it may be difficult in some cases to ascertain the value of a personal injury claim beforehand, the notice requirement is still necessary to give the state some idea as to the “magnitude of the claim, as practicable and to the extent of the claimant’s knowledge and belief.” Failure to provide such notice renders any and all claims, no matter how valid, moot in the eyes of the courts.