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Georgia Court of Appeals Dismisses Personal Injury Claim Against Polk County Sheriff

In a typical personal injury claim arising from a car accident, the plaintiff is free to sue the defendant for damages at any time prior to the expiration of the statute of limitations, which is normally two years for personal injury claims. However, when the defendant is a government employee, and the accident occurred while that person was acting in an official role, the plaintiff needs to jump through some additional hoops before a court will even hear the lawsuit.

For example, if you are injured in a car accident caused by the negligence of a Georgia county employee, state law requires that you present a claim to the county within 12 months. Basically, you need to give the county written notice before you can sue it. If you fail to comply with this notice requirement, a judge will dismiss any subsequent personal injury lawsuit based on that claim.

Moats v. Mendez

The Georgia Court of Appeals recently addressed this subject in a decision, Moats v. Mendez, dismissing a personal injury lawsuit against the Polk County sheriff and one of his deputies. The plaintiff in this case was driving his car in Cedartown one day when his vehicle collided with a sheriff’s patrol vehicle driven by the deputy. The plaintiff maintained that the deputy was negligent in that she “attempted to make a left-hand turn without yielding to oncoming traffic.”

A few months after the accident, the plaintiff’s attorney sent a written notice to the Polk County Board of Commissioners, notifying it of the plaintiff’s claim. The plaintiff later sued the sheriff and the deputy without providing separate written notice to the sheriff’s office. The two defendants then moved to dismiss the case, arguing that this constituted a failure to follow Georgia’s notice requirements for lawsuits against county employees.

The trial judge denied the defense motion, but the Court of Appeals reversed. Writing for the appeals court, Chief Judge Stephen Dillard said the notice requirement applied separately to the county and the sheriff’s office. That is to say, it was insufficient for the plaintiff to notify the Board of Commissioners of his claim; he also needed to send prior notice directly to the sheriff. Since no such notice was given, the plaintiff’s claims against the sheriff were barred.

It should be noted that not all of the judges on the Court of Appeals agreed with this interpretation of the law. Presiding Judge Sara Doyle, writing a dissenting opinion, noted that under a “strict construction” of the notice requirement, presenting a claim to a county Board of Commissioners was sufficient to also put the sheriff’s office on notice. After all, Judge Doyle said, “the county is the entity responsible for allocating a budget to the sheriff and ultimately funding any settlement or judgment.”

Separately, all of the Court of Appeals judges agreed the plaintiff could not individually sue the deputy who allegedly caused the accident. Under Georgia law, an accident victim may sue the county or another local government entity, but not individual employees. Indeed, the law specifically exempts from suit “[a]ny local government officer or employee who commits a tort involving the use of a covered motor vehicle while in the performance of his or her official duties.”