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Sovereign immunity and collisions involving law enforcement officers

Posted by John Hadden | Apr 29, 2019 | 0 Comments

A recent wreck in Augusta involving a Richmond County Sheriff's Deputy may provide courts with an opportunity to apply a relatively new law to car accident cases.

As reported by WRDW Channel 12 last week, two people (including the deputy) were hospitalized when a sheriff's deputy allegedly ran a red light in Augusta near River Watch Parkway. Georgia law, specifically Official Code of Georgia (OCGA) section 40-6-6, requires emergency vehicles, including law enforcement vehicles, to follow all applicable traffic laws except when responding to an emergency. In emergency situations, law enforcement officers and other personnel are excused from following certain traffic laws, but only if "such vehicle is making use of an audible signal and use of a flashing or revolving red [or blue] light visible under normal atmospheric conditions from a distance of 500 feet to the front of such vehicle . . . ." In this case, it is unclear if the deputy was involved in an emergency situation or if his sirens or lights were activated.

Until recently, sheriff's deputies and and their departments and counties were immune from lawsuits and liability for auto accident cases unless the government had purchased insurance. In 2002, however, OCGA 36-92-1 et seq. was enacted, and now local governments are deemed to have waived their immunity for injuries caused by auto collisions for a minimum of $500,000 in damages per person, and $700,000 per accident, unless the government entity has a higher amount of insurance. This at least partially resolved the problem of injured personal injury victims being left uncompensated due to the failure of the sheriff or other government entity to purchase insurance. Regardless of the purchase of insurance, there is at least a partial waiver of the sovereign immunity.

This waiver can also apply to innocent victims who are injured in the course of a police pursuit. Under OCGA 40-6-6(c)(2), where an officer initiates or continues a pursuit "with reckless disregard for proper law enforcement procedures." Many law enforcement agencies have extensive policies for initiating and continuing pursuits, which often prohibit their initiation for minor traffic offenses or when the pursue would endanger the public.

In City of Atlanta v. Lockett, 312 Ga. App. 19, 717 S.E.2d 529 (2011), the Georgia Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed that the City of Atlanta was not immune from a claim brought by a pedestrian who was struck by a fleeing driver after an Atlanta officer allegedly instituted an improper pursuit. The decision relied upon OCGA 40-6-6 and OCGA 35-92-1 et seq. in finding that the statutory scheme intended to allow such claims to be brought by victims of wrongful pursuits. John Hadden represented the injured victim in that case.

About the Author

John Hadden

John D. Hadden is the owner and founder of the Hadden Law Firm. An experienced trial and appellate lawyer, he is author of three respected treatises on Georgia litigation practice: Greens Georgia Law of Evidence, Georgia Law of Torts - Trial Preparation and Practice, and Georgia Magistrate Court...

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