In July 2019, a woman from Lawrenceville attended her son’s football practice at a local field. The woman walked by the field’s bleachers when she slipped and fell on an uncovered drain. She suffered injuries as a result of this fall and subsequently sued Gwinnett County, which operated the field, and a number of related parties, mostly unidentified county employees. The now-plaintiff alleged that the County’s failure to properly maintain or repair the drain caused her accident.
Gwinnett County, GA, v. Ashby
Gwinnett County promptly moved to dismiss the lawsuit. It cited the longstanding legal principle of “sovereign immunity,” which holds that a person cannot sue the state or any of its subdivisions–such as a county–unless their claims are expressly authorized by the Georgia General Assembly. The County insisted that no such legislative waiver of sovereign immunity applied to the plaintiff’s lawsuit. In response, the plaintiff cited a state law known as the Recreational Property Act (RPA).
The RPA allows people to sue landowners who make their property available for recreational purposes–but only when a fee is charged for admission. Here, the plaintiff said she had to pay a fee for her son to play on the football team and use the county’s park for practice. The trial judge apparently accepted this argument and denied Gwinnett County’s motion to dismiss on sovereign immunity grounds.
The judge did allow the County to file an immediate appeal. After reviewing the applicable law, the Georgia Court of Appeals held the case should be dismissed. The main problem here, the appeals court said, was that the RPA does not actually constitute a waiver of sovereign immunity. In the context of personal injury claims, the General Assembly has only waived immunity with respect to state employees, agencies, and departments. Counties are not included in this waiver, the Court of Appeals noted, and thus the plaintiff cannot bring a lawsuit based on premises liability under the RPA.
For similar reasons, the appeals court rejected the plaintiff’s contention that Gwinnett County somehow waived sovereign immunity “when it charged a fee for her son’s participation in football.” Once again, this falls under the RPA, which does not waive sovereign immunity with respect to counties. And “as an aside,” the Court of Appeals pointed out that “the ‘charge’ that [the plaintiff] alleges she paid is not the type that would permit her to recover under the Act anyway.” As noted above, the RPA only makes a property owner liable when it charges a fee for admission. That does not include fees for participating in activities that may happen to take place on the property.
Finally, the appeals court rejected the plaintiff’s attempt to argue there was a limited waiver of sovereign immunity “to the extent” that Gwinnett County had purchased liability insurance to cover the negligent acts of its employees. Such limited waivers only apply to motor vehicle accidents caused by county employees. But this case had nothing to do with motor vehicles, the Court observed.