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Where do I Sue a “John Doe” Driver for Negligence in Georgia?

One of the first legal questions you need to answer before filing a personal injury lawsuit in Georgia is, “What is the proper venue?” Venue refers to the locality where a case is heard and tried. In the State of Georgia, civil cases are tried in a superior court for a particular county.

What happens if you live in one county and want to sue someone who lives in another county? Under the Georgia Constitution, venue is “in the county where the defendant resides.” So let’s say you live in Cobb County and are involved in a car accident with someone who lives in Gwinnett County. According to Georgia law, you would have to file a personal injury lawsuit against the defendant in Gwinnett County Superior Court.

Now, suppose you were involved in a three-car accident and you want to sue both of the other drivers, each of whom lives in a different county. In that scenario you could sue both defendants in either county. So, if one defendant lived in Cobb and the other in Gwinnett, you could select either county’s superior court.

Carpenter v. McMann

To make the legal question of venue slightly more complicated, what happens if you are in a three-car accident involving an unknown driver, such as the case of a hit-and-run? The Georgia Supreme Court recently sorted out just such a scenario.

This case originated in Bibb County. The plaintiffs were riding in a car going down I-75. An unknown driver–identified only as “John Doe” in court documents–swerved his vehicle into the plaintiffs’ lane, causing the driver of their car to slam the brakes. This, in turn, led a third driver traveling behind the plaintiffs to rear-end their vehicle.

The plaintiffs sued both the “John Doe” and the rear-end driver (whom we will call “the defendant” here for the sake of simplicity) for negligence. Since the “John Doe” remains unknown, the plaintiffs sued him under Georgia’s uninsured motorist statute. That statute provides that venue exists in either the county where the accident occurred, or the county where the plaintiff resides, as of course nobody knows where the “John Doe” lives.

In this case, the plaintiff elected to file in Bibb County, where the accident occurred. But the known defendant objected to this, since he is a resident of Crawford County. According to the Constitution, the defendant asserted, he has the right to have the case against him tried in his home county.

The Supreme Court disagreed. It unanimously held that for purposes of the constitutional venue requirement, the “John Doe” resides in Bibb County. The plaintiff was therefore entitled to choose between Bibb County and Crawford County when she sued both drivers for negligence arising from the same accident. The Court rejected the defendant’s view that an “unknown motorist is a ‘nominal party’ whose presumed residence may not be considered for purposes of establishing venue.” To adopt such a view, the Court argued, would amount to rewriting the law.