Georgia Supreme Court Dismisses Lawsuit Against State College Over a Technicality

The Georgia Supreme Court recently dismissed a personal injury lawsuit brought by a woman who fell into a pothole in a parking lot. The woman sued the property owner for maintaining unsafe conditions in the parking lot. In this case, the property owner was Dalton State College, part of the University System of Georgia. As the named defendant, the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia is immune from civil lawsuits unless certain conditions specified by Georgia law are met. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court found the plaintiff failed to meet one of those technical conditions.

Board of Regents v. Myers

There was no question the woman suffered serious injuries. After falling in the pothole at Dalton State’s parking lot, she required emergency treatment, extended orthopedic care, and several months of physical therapy. While still receiving treatment, the woman notified the Board of Regents of her intention to sue. Georgia law requires such notice be given in order to effect a waiver of the Board’s sovereign immunity.

The notice itself must contain a description of the time, place, and circumstances of the accident giving rise to the personal injury claim. The notice must also specify “the nature and amount of the loss suffered” by the victim. But in her notice, the woman only said her “loss is yet to be determined as she is still incurring medical bills and does not yet know the full extent of her injury.”

The trial court said this was insufficient. The law requires a specific claim for damages. The trial court said it could not ignore this requirement, and deemed the plaintiff’s failure to offer a specific amount grounds for dismissal.

The Georgia Court of Appeals reversed the trial court. In a 2013 decision, that court said Georgia law “does not require a partial statement or ‘snapshot’ of the loss; instead it requires a statement of the ‘amount of the loss claimed.’” Because she was still receiving treatment at the time she was required to give notice, the Court of Appeals said it was unreasonable to require her to quantify her still-unknown losses.

But the Supreme Court disagreed. By a vote of 6-1, the justices said the plaintiff could have presented a specific claim for the medical expenses she incurred up to the point when the law required her to give notice. The plaintiff could have given notice with respect to this partial amount and amended her claim later to reflect additional expenses, the Supreme Court said, but she could not simply wait until she had more complete information before complying with the law’s notice requirement. Accordingly, the Supreme Court reinstated the trial court’s decision to dismiss the plaintiff’s lawsuit, saying she was barred by sovereign immunity.

Justice Robert Benham was the only dissenting vote. He agreed with the Court of Appeals that the plaintiff gave adequate notice under the circumstances, and one should not read the law as requiring an “incomplete snapshot” of a victim’s still-accumulating expenses or losses. In all other respects, Justice Benham added, the plaintiff fully complied with the notice requirements.

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