Acting as your own attorney is never a good idea. This is especially true when it comes to personal injury claims. Even a seemingly “simple” lawsuit arising from something like a car accident can implicate many complex questions of law. If you have never participated in a civil lawsuit before, you can easily get tripped up on even the most basic procedures, which in turn can finish your case before it even begins.
Clarke v. McMurry
A recent decision by a federal judge in Atlanta offers a helpful cautionary tale. The plaintiff in this case represented himself. He worked for the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT). While operating a vehicle in the course of his work, the plaintiff was hit by a drunk driver. As a result, the plaintiff said he suffered a traumatic brain injury and “skeletal damage,” as well as “extreme emotional distress.”
The plaintiff subsequently filed a $10 million personal injury lawsuit in federal court against the Commissioner of the GDOT, alleging that he violated the plaintiff’s constitutional rights in connection with the accident. The plaintiff personally mailed the lawsuit to the Commissioner via the U.S. Postal Service. The Commissioner later moved to dismiss the case, citing improper service as well as the state’s own sovereign immunity.
The judge assigned to this case agreed with the Commissioner on both issues and granted his motion to dismiss. With respect to service, you cannot simply mail a defendant your lawsuit. Service must be done in-person by a “natural person” who is at least 18 years old and, critically, is not the plaintiff. Typically you would hire a process server or have the local sheriff perform service on your behalf. As the judge explained, the Postal Service cannot perform service.
Aside from the defective service, the judge also noted that the plaintiff could not sue a Georgia state official for monetary damages in federal court. This runs afoul of the Eleventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This amendment specifies that the jurisdiction of federal courts does not extended to cases “commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State.” This language reflects an old legal principle known as sovereign immunity, i.e. you cannot sue a “sovereign” state without its consent.
As the judge here explained, the State of Georgia has reserved its own sovereign immunity through its own state constitution. This means that unless the Georgia General Assembly passes a law that expressly waives sovereign immunity, no court can hear a case against it. Now, the General Assembly has enacted the Georgia Tort Claims Act, which authorizes individuals to file personal injury claims against state officials and agencies in state court. This waiver does not extend to federal courts.
It is also important to understand that lawsuits filed under the Georgia Tort Claims Act must follow strict requirements that do not apply in personal injury claims brought against private parties. As with the rules governing service, a court will not treat a plaintiff more leniently just because he or she acts without the assistance of a qualified attorney.