Archive for August, 2010

Supreme Court of Georgia Revisits Discretionary vs. Ministerial Distinction as Applied to School Board Policy

Supreme Court of Georgia Revisits Discretionary vs. Ministerial Distinction as Applied to School Board Policy

The Supreme Court of Georgia recently held that a public school teacher who allegedly failed to provide eye protection to her student during a science experiment exercised her discretion and was therefore protected by official immunity. Grammens v. Dollar, 2010 WL 2642759 (Ga. Jul. 5, 2010).

David Dollar, a student in a science class taught by Patricia Grammens, suffered an eye injury while conducting an experiment that involved “launching” a plastic soda bottle by means of water and air pressure. Dollar filed suit against Grammens, alleging she violated the school board’s eye-protection policy, which required individuals to wear appropriate eye protection while participating in any course of instruction involving, among other things, “caustic or explosive materials.” The trial court granted summary judgment to Grammens on the ground that her actions were discretionary and protected by official immunity. The Court of Appeals of Georgia reversed, determining that the eye-protection policy required a ministerial act.

Official immunity protects public agents from personal liability for “discretionary” actions taken within the scope of their official authority and done without willfulness or malice. However, public agents may be liable for “ministerial” acts performed with negligence. A ministerial act is commonly one that is simple, absolute, and definite, requiring merely the execution of a specific duty. A discretionary act, however, calls for the exercise of personal deliberation or judgment, which involves examining facts, reaching reasoned conclusions, and acting on them in a way not specifically directed. Where there is an established policy requiring an official to take a specific action in a specific situation, the policy creates a ministerial duty.

In reversing the Court of Appeals of Georgia, the Supreme Court of Georgia held that an official may exercise discretion in deciding whether the condition that is a necessary prerequisite to the ministerial act exists. Here, the ministerial duty requiring the use of eye protection depended on the use of “caustic or explosive materials.” However, the policy did not define “explosive materials.” Therefore, the policy required Grammens to exercise her judgment, i.e., to engage in a discretionary act, in determining whether it was applicable to this particular experiment. The Court held that where a written policy requires the individual to exercise discretion in the implementation of the policy, the policy does not require a ministerial act, and the individual will be shielded by official immunity.

For more information, please contact Ryan Florio at (404) 633-9230.

Summary Judgment for Insurer Reversed on Issue of Whether Named Insured’s Relative Qualified as an Insured Under Policy as a Member of Named Insured’s Household

In Geiger v. Georgia Farm Bureau Mut. Ins. Co., __ Ga.App. __, Case No. A10A0149, 2010 WL 2684375 (July 8, 2010), the named insured purchased a policy which covered insured’s property and two separate dwellings on the property.  The insured and his wife lived in the main dwelling while the insured’s father-in-law lived in the other house.  The policy’s definition of “insured” included “[a]ny of your relatives who are members of your household … .”  The claimant was injured when he fell from a ladder near the father-in-law’s dwelling and subsequently filed suit against the father-in-law.  The insurer argued that the father-in-law was not an insured since he was not a member of the named insured’s household, and the trial court granted the insurer’s motion for summary judgment.

At the time the claimant was injured, the father-in-law was living at the main dwelling because there was no running water at his house.  The evidence also showed that:  (1) the insured’s wife provided most of the father-in-law’s meals; (2) the insured paid the father-in-law’s bills; (3) the father-in-law had resided at the main dwelling on two other occasions when his dwelling was being repaired; and (4) the father-in-law received his mail at both dwellings.  Based on these facts, as well as the fact that the father-in-law’s house was a covered structure under the policy, the Georgia Court of Appeals reversed the grant of summary judgment to the insurer and held that a jury needed to resolve the question of whether the father-in-law qualified as an insured under the policy as a member of the insured’s household.

For more information, please contact Denny Brown at (404) 633-9230.

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