Personal injury claims against Georgia state officials are subject to a special set of constitutional and statutory rules. According to the Georgia Constitution, the General Assembly “may waive the state’s sovereign immunity” by law in cases in which an individual employee negligently injures someone. But “except as specifically provided” by such a waiver, the Constitution says, no public employee can be held liable for “the performance or nonperformance of their official functions.”
What does this mean, practically speaking? Basically, you can not sue an employee for exercising his or her own discretion in the performance of a job. You can, however, sue an employee who fails to carry out a legally mandated (or “ministerial”) task.
Wyno v. Lowndes County
The Georgia Supreme Court recently ruled on a case that centered on this ministerial-versus-discretionary distinction. This particular lawsuit, Wyno v. Lowndes County, involves the tragic death of a woman due to a dog mauling. Specifically, the victim was killed by her neighbor’s dog.
The victim’s widow–the plaintiff here–subsequently sued a number of parties for wrongful death, including Lowndes County. The plaintiff’s claim against the County was based on its alleged failure to respond to numerous prior complaints about the dog’s aggressive behavior. The plaintiff maintained the County had a “ministerial” duty to enforce its local animal control ordinance, and its failure to do so contributed to the victim’s death.
The trial court held that the County was protected under sovereign immunity from the plaintiff’s claims. The judge went on to find that under Georgia law at the time, the owner of the dog was “solely liable” for the victim’s injuries. That is to say, the County and its employees could not be held liable for what happened in any capacity.
The Georgia Court of Appeals partially reversed the trial court. The appeals court said the trial judge should have addressed the plaintiff’s argument that the law limiting the County’s liability for dog attacks violated the Georgia Constitution. After considering these arguments, the trial judge again dismissed the plaintiff’s lawsuit.
The Georgia Supreme Court declined to address the constitutional challenge itself, as it held that the animal control law in question imposed a “discretionary” rather than a ministerial duty on the County’s employees. The Supreme Court noted the ordinance “directs animal control officers to make investigations and inquiries upon receiving a complaint,” which they did in this case. The officers then need to make a determination as to whether the dog that is the subject of the complaint is “vicious, dangerous, or potentially dangerous.” This “necessarily requires the exercise of judgment,” the Court said, and is therefore not a ministerial duty.
The Court also explained that in some cases, a plaintiff may still sue a public employee for failure to perform a discretionary duty if said failure was “malicious” or intended to injure the victim. But the Court said there was no evidence of “actual malice” here. The plaintiff and his late wife did not personally know any of the animal control officers involved, and therefore there was no reason to believe the officers harbored any malice or ill-will toward them.