If you’re in a motor-vehicle accident, it can matter a great deal who owns the offending vehicle, at least when it comes to assessing legal liability. The State of Georgia and its subsidiaries, including cities and counties, are immune from most lawsuits arising from the negligent operation of vehicles by their employees. This “sovereign immunity” can extend even to egregious cases of failure to maintain vehicles in proper working order, as a recent decision by the Georgia Court of Appeals illustrates.
City of Milledgeville v. Primus
Lucious Primus is an officer with the Georgia Department of Corrections. In 2006, Primus had to transport an inmate from a work detail in Milledgeville back to a nearby prison. The City of Milledgeville owned and maintained the bus Primus was driving. On this particular day, the brakes on the bus failed, causing Primus to drive off the road and hit a utility pole, injuring his neck and shoulders.
Primus sued Milledgeville for negligence. A post-crash inspection of the bus revealed “the front brake-line had burst” causing the brake failure. It’s unknown whether a pre-accident inspection would have led to the discovery of any problems with either the front or rear brake-lines. According to the city’s mechanic, brake-lines usually last for the life of a vehicle and are not subject to replacement during routine maintenance. Furthermore, both the city and Primus conducted regularly scheduled inspections of the bus and found no problems.
The city moved to dismiss Primus’ lawsuit on sovereign immunity grounds. The trial judge denied the motion without explanation but allowed the city to immediately appeal the ruling. A three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals subsequently reversed the trial judge, however, and ordered the lower court to dismiss the case.
In Georgia, sovereign immunity does not apply when a city is accused of failing to perform certain non-discretionary (or “ministerial”) functions. Immunity attaches, however, when the alleged negligence arises from a city employee’s discretionary exercise of his or her own judgment. The Court of Appeals found Primus’ lawsuit fell into this latter category.
Under these circumstances, the city only had a ministerial duty to “maintain and inspect the bus.” But the decision on whether or not to replace the brake line was left to city employees. The burden is on Primus to show that there was specific law or guideline that the city failed to follow which, had it been followed, would have led to the discovery of the faulty brake-line. Apparently no such policy existed. Therefore it was left to the discretion of city officials whether and when to replace the brake-lines, and as such Primus can’t fault the city in court.
The key lesson here is that if you sue a government agency for negligence, it’s essential to determine whether there’s a specific set of legally mandatory procedures the state, city, or locality failed to follow. Sovereign immunity is assumed by the courts unless and until a plaintiff can prove otherwise. If there’s any room for official discretion, your lawsuit will likely be dismissed.