Archive for October, 2011

Recent Decisions Involving Waiver of Sovereign Immunity for Use of Motor Vehicles

The Georgia Court of Appeals recently addressed a county’s waiver of sovereign immunity for claims arising out of the use of a government vehicle.

In Strength v. Lovett, 2011 WL 2716018 (Ga.App. Jul. 14, 2011), the plaintiffs sued a county sheriff for wrongful death arising out of a fatal collision during a high speed chase involving a sheriff’s deputy. The plaintiffs alleged the deputy acted in reckless disregard of proper police procedures in choosing to pursue a fleeing a suspect at high speed and causing a collision. The trial court denied the sheriff’s motion for summary judgment on grounds of sovereign immunity and the sheriff appealed. Under O.C.G.A. § 36-92-2, a county’s sovereign immunity is waived “for a loss arising out of claims for the negligent use of a covered motor vehicle.” While the sheriff did not dispute that the deputy’s patrol car was a “covered motor vehicle,” he contended that the plaintiffs’ claim was not one for “the negligent use of” the vehicle. Specifically, the sheriff argued that a deputy makes a “negligent use of” a vehicle only when he operates the vehicle in a negligent manner, not when he makes a reckless decision while safely operating the vehicle. The Georgia Court of Appeals disagreed, holding that a claim that an officer acted in reckless disregard of proper procedures in pursuing a fleeing suspect falls within the scope of claims for negligent use of a county-owned motor vehicle. Therefore, the sheriff was not entitled to sovereign immunity.

In Glynn County v. Johnson, 2011 WL 4057437 (Ga.App. Sep. 14, 2011), the plaintiff sued the county alleging he sustained permanent lung injuries after breathing chemicals sprayed by the county’s mosquito control helicopter. The trial court denied the county’s motion to dismiss on grounds of sovereign immunity and the county appealed. The plaintiff argued that the county waived its immunity under O.C.G.A. § 33-24-51 by purchasing liability insurance for the helicopter. That statute provides that sovereign immunity is waived where a county purchases insurance to cover damages “arising by reason of ownership, maintenance, operation, or use of any motor vehicle.” The county argued that its helicopter did not constitute a “motor vehicle” within the meaning of the statute. The Georgia Court of Appeals agreed, holding that “any motor vehicle” refers to a vehicle that “is capable of being driven on the public roads.” Because a helicopter does not fit this definition, there could be no waiver of the county’s sovereign immunity, despite the purchase of insurance for the helicopter.

For more information, please contact Timothy J. Buckley III, Esq. at (404) 633-9230.

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