Georgia law imposes certain responsibilities on property owners. In most cases, the owner or occupier of a property must keep their premises safe for those who have been invited on to the property.
If an injury occurs due to an unsafe condition on that property--even federal, state, or local government property--it may be possible to hold the property owner financially responsible (liable) for the resulting injuries.
Premises Liability in Georgia
Most premises liability lawsuits in Georgia involve a claim of negligence. To prove negligence, you must be able to demonstrate that:
- The property owner had a duty to keep their property safe.
- The property owner failed in that duty; for example, they knew about (or should have known about) a hazardous condition on their property and didn't correct it.
- The hazardous condition caused the injury.
- The injury caused damages.
Injury lawsuits against the government are often challenging because the principle of sovereign immunity limits the ability to sue the federal, state, county or local government for damages, even if a government employee was negligent. The process for filing claims against the government and the amount and type of damages available in a case against the government are often different than when a claim is made against a company or private individual.
All of this can make it more difficult—though sometimes not impossible—to successfully sue a government agency, officer, or employee for injuries that occurred on government property due to the actions of a government employee.
Sovereign Immunity in Georgia Premises Liability Cases
In Georgia, premises liability lawsuits against the government are often limited by the principle of sovereign immunity. Sovereign immunity is a legal principle that holds that a government cannot be sued without its consent.
The U.S. federal government has waived its immunity in certain circumstances, as has the state of Georgia. The Georgia legislature has also passed laws that waive the sovereign immunity of counties, cities, towns and other government bodies in particular situations.
Depending on whether the injury occurred on federal, state, county or local government property, different degrees of sovereign immunity may apply. This can affect whether you can successfully sue the government for your injuries at all, as well as the process for doing so, and any potential damages you may receive for your injuries.
Injuries That Occur on State Government Property
State sovereign immunity can only be waived by an act of the Georgia General Assembly. One way the Georgia government has done so is by enacting the Georgia Tort Claims Act.
Injury Claims Under the Georgia Tort Claims Act
The Georgia Tort Claims Act creates a limited waiver of state sovereign immunity (see GA Code § 50-21-23). Under the Georgia Tort Claims Act, the state of Georgia may be liable for certain negligent acts of its officers and employees, if the officer or employee was "acting within the scope of their official duties or employment."
The state of Georgia cannot be sued for an employee's performance (or non-performance) of discretionary duties. Discretionary duties require a judgment call or a choice between alternate courses of action. In most cases, it is not possible to sue the state if government employees were acting in good faith when performing a discretionary function.
Discretionary functions are different from "ministerial" functions. Ministerial functions are clearly defined and don't require any decision-making on the part of the government employee. Thus, whether the government employee was performing a ministerial or discretionary function is often a crucial element in lawsuits against the government.
In most cases, the most any individual can recover for a single incident under the Georgia Tort Claims is $1 million, regardless of the number of state government entities involved. Punitive damages also cannot be awarded in injury cases against the government.
Claims against counties, cities, towns, or school districts cannot be made based on the Georgia Tort Claims Act.
Deadlines and Process for Filing Injury Claims Against the State Government
Before filing a claim against the state, the injured person must first give the state notice of their claim. Generally, notice of the claim must be given within 12 months of the injury. The notice must be given in writing, and there are very specific requirements for who the notice must be sent to, how the notice is delivered, and what the notice contains (see GA Code § 50-21-26).
Injuries that Occur on County Government Property
If an injury occurs due to a hazardous condition on county property, the injured party's options may be limited. In Georgia, it is often difficult to successfully sue a county government or its employee for negligence.
As with claims against the state government, claims against county governments are also subject to specific processes and filing rules. For example, the county must be notified of potential claims within 12 months of the injury in most cases.
Injuries on City Property
Georgia law also permits lawsuits against cities and towns under certain circumstances, including:
- Cities and towns may be held liable for their employees' "neglect to perform or improper or unskillful performance of their ministerial duties" (ministerial duties are those duties that are straightforward and don't require any sort of judgment call on the part of the government employee). (See GA Code § 36-33-1).
- Cities and towns may also be held liable for injuries that occur due to defects in streets or sidewalks, if the municipality was negligent in its duty to keep its streets and sidewalks safe. Georgia courts have found that street and sidewalk maintenance is a ministerial duty. (See GA Code § 32-4-93).
In addition, council members and city or town officers can be held personally liable (meaning they can be sued as an individual, rather than as a government employee) if their oppressive, malicious, or corrupt actions resulted in certain kinds of damages.
As with actions against the state government, the injured person must give notice to city or town governments of the intention to file a claim for damages. In most cases, this notice must be given within six months of the injury.
Injuries on Federal Government Property
Most injury lawsuits against the federal government are governed by the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), which says "The United States shall be liable, respecting the provisions of this title relating to tort claims, in the same manner and to the same extent as a private individual under like circumstances."
Despite this seemingly broad description of when it is possible to file a claim against the U.S. government, there are many exceptions. Notably, the federal government may not be sued for injuries resulting from its employees "exercising due care, in the execution of a statute or regulation" or for performing (or failing to perform) discretionary activities.
Were You Injured on Government Property in Georgia?
While it can be challenging to successfully recover damages from the government for injuries on government property, don't make the mistake of thinking the government is always immune from liability for injuries it caused. If you have been injured on government property in Georgia, an experienced government premises liability lawyer can help you get the compensation you are due. Contact the Hadden Law Firm to learn more.