All Georgia motorists have a duty to obey the rules of the road and drive with care. Even when a driver does everything by the book, an accident may still occur due to someone else’s negligence or due to a public nuisance created by improper design or maintenance of the roadway. In the latter scenario, the local government responsible for operating the roadway may be liable for personal injuries sustained by an accident victim.
Mayor and Alderman of City of Savannah v. Herrera
Normally Georgia cities and municipalities are protected from civil lawsuits by sovereign immunity. The state legislature has waived this immunity in cases in which a local government fails to correct a known roadway defect. As explained by the Georgia Court of Appeals in a 2005 decision, “municipalities generally have a ministerial duty to keep their streets in repair, and they are liable for injuries resulting from defects after actual notice, or after the defect has existed for a sufficient length of time for notice to be inferred.” This includes defects arising from both man-made and natural causes.
More recently, the Court of Appeals addressed the application of this waiver of sovereign immunity to a personal injury case brought by a the legal conservator of a car accident victim. The victim was traveling down a two-lane road in Savannah when she approached a three-way intersection with a four-lane road. The victim attempted to cross the two northbound lanes of the four-way road so she could turn left onto the southbound lanes. According to court records, as she entered the northbound lanes, her vehicle “was struck on the driver’s side” by a truck driven by a local police officer.
This collision proved catastrophic for the victim. The initial impact “caused both vehicles to move the left and collide again,” according to records, forcing the victim’s vehicle onto the center median of the four-lane road, where it eventually crashed into a utility pole. The victim sustained a traumatic brain injury in the accident and remains incapacitated to this day.
The victim’s court-appointed conservator later sued several parties in connection with the accident, including the City of Savannah. The City’s alleged liability stems from the presence of two oak trees that, at the time of the accident, created blind spots that obstructed the victim’s view of oncoming traffic from the four-lane road. In plain English, the victim could not see the truck coming because the oak trees blocked her view.
One of these trees is on City-owned land. Despite this fact, the City argued that sovereign immunity barred the conservator’s claims, arguing that it was unaware of any traffic obstruction caused by the tree. The trial court denied the City summary judgment on this issue, however, and the Court of Appeals affirmed that ruling. The appeals court explained that as far back as 1998, Savannah officials were aware that the tree in question “impaired driver visibility.” There was at least one other reported collision three years prior to the victim’s accident in this case that occurred at the same intersection due to the tree-obstructed sight lines. Given this information, the Court of Appeals said it was premature to dismiss the conservator’s claims at the summary judgment stage.