On September 14, 2015, a 20-year-old woman died in an automobile accident following a high-speed pursuit initiated by a deputy with the Oconee County, Georgia Sheriff's department. She was a passenger in a vehicle that collided with an 18-wheeler at an intersection during the pursuit. The woman's parents then filed a wrongful death suit against Oconee County based on their allegations that, at a minimum, the police pursuit should not have been continued in the manner it was, and that as a result of allegedly negligently continuing the pursuit, their daughter died. After the lawsuit was filed, the trial court (the Superior Court of Oconee County) granted summary judgment to Oconee County and denied the parents' motion to substitute the Oconee County Sheriff for the county itself, effectively ending the case. On October 30, 2019, the Georgia Court of Appeals reversed (in part) and ruled that the trial judge should have allowed the Sheriff to be substituted and the case proceed. John Hadden, along with co-counsel Darl Champion and Meredith Watts, represented the 20-year-old victim's parents in their appeal of the dismissal of the wrongful death lawsuit.
In Georgia, several limitation periods can apply to personal injury claims. Generally, for victims who are at least 18 years old and are legally competent, the general statute of limitation is 2 years, although in certain circumstances this period can be lengthened or shortened. And in cases involving governmental entities, an ante-litem (meaning pre-litigation) notice is required, and failure to properly send the ante-litem notice will bar a claim and generally result in dismissal. Such notices are not required for all government entities, but are required for claims against cities, counties, and the state, with rules and governing the time and procedure for each. Claims against sheriffs also require ante litem notices.
Here, the wrongful death lawsuit was filed within 2 years of the woman's death, and a proper ante-litem notice was sent. But after the statute of limitation expired, Oconee County moved for summary judgment, arguing that the Oconee County Sheriff was the proper party, rather than the county, and therefore the County was entitled to summary judgment, a judgement that, in essence, meant the case was dismissed. The plaintiffs argued that Oconee County was, in fact the proper party, based on the text of Official Code of Georgia, Annotated (O.C.G.A.) § 36-92-1 et seq., but that even if it was not, the Oconee County Sheriff should simply be substituted because the Sheriff had notice, had participated in the litigation, and was well aware of the lawsuit and would not be prejudiced. Oconee County and the Oconee County Sheriff were represented by the same attorney, and insured by the same insurer.
The Court of Appeals disagreed with the plaintiffs' argument that the County was, in fact the proper entity, based on its interpretation of the relevant statute. O.C.G.A. § 36-92-1(3) defined local government entity as "any county, municipal corporation, or consolidated city-county government of this state," but the Court held, citing the earlier case of Davis v. Morrison, 344 Ga. App. 527, 810 S.E.2d 649 (2018), that the term should be interpreted more broadly to cover entities that are separate from those listed that provide governmental services.
Nevertheless, the Court of Appeals continued, the Oconee County Sheriff had shown no prejudice give the office's involvement in the litigation and its clear knowledge of both the claim and the lawsuit. Therefore, the Court of Appeals held that the trial judge should have granted the victim's parents' motion to substitute the sheriff for the county, and reversed the Superior Court judge's ruling otherwise. Absent an attempt by the Sheriff to seek review from the Georgia Supreme Court, the case will return to the trial court for further consideration of the merits of the case, which were not addressed by the appeals court. In a prior appellate case where John Hadden successfully represented a victim, the Georgia Court of Appeals explained in more detail when a jury should be entitled to consider cases involving police pursuits.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Because of the complex Georgia rules governing notice requirements and other procedures in claims against government entities, it may be advisable to consult with a qualified attorney who can determine the proper rules that apply and confirm that a victim complies with them so that claims are not waived based on technicalities. Nothing in this blog post or on this site should be interpreted as legal advice.