One might think the concept of liability in a car accident case would be a straightforward matter.
But complications can arise depending on who was driving, who owned the vehicle, whether the at-fault person was working at the time and whether a defective vehicle part or poorly-maintained vehicle may have been to blame.
In the recent case of Primas v. City of Milledgeville, plaintiff argued before the Georgia Supreme Court that a city-owned van leased to a state prison system had poorly-maintained brakes, which caused a crash resulting in injury for which the city should pay.
However, because we are talking about a government entity, liability is convoluted by the assertion of sovereign immunity. The doctrine of sovereign immunity dates back to old English law, and essentially holds the “crown” – or in this case, the government – can’t be held liable for torts, unless it gives its permission.
While these instances can vary from state-to-state, exception to sovereign immunity is typically only granted when negligence arises from operational functions, as opposed to discretionary acts or functions. That is, if a worker was carrying out some function that required the exercise of individual judgment, the immunity holds firm. However, if the function involved some kind of standard operating procedure (i.e., the employee was merely following government directive), sovereign immunity may not provide sound defense.
In Midgeville, plaintiff was driving a prison work van, owned by the city, leased to the state. Pursuant to a contract, it was the city’s responsibility to maintain the vehicle and purchase insurance for the vehicle. On the day of the crash, plaintiff approached an intersection and attempted to slow. However, the brakes failed. Plaintiff was able to steer the vehicle away from other cars, but he was injured when the vehicle struck a pole.
He later filed a lawsuit alleging negligence on the part of the city for failure to inspect and maintain the brakes, which proximately caused the auto accident.
Trial court denied city’s motion for summary judgment, despite argument the maintenance and inspection of brake lines were a discretionary act for which sovereign immunity protection was not waived.
The appellate court, however, reversed, finding the claim barred for purposes the city asserted. However, when the appellate court weighed the matter, it applied standards for official immunity, rather than sovereign immunity. Official immunity involves protections for those in the executive branch of government, but that was never an issue in this case.
When plaintiff appealed to state supreme court on this point, even defendant agreed the wrong standard had been applied.
Plaintiff further argued to supreme court that because the city purchased insurance for the vehicle, this alone was a waiver of sovereign immunity. This point might well be true, but it was not argued before the trial court, and new issues can’t be brought for the first time on appeal, so the court couldn’t consider it. What it did rule was the appellate court would need to once again weigh the case, this time applying the correct legal standards in deciding whether trial court’s refusal to grant summary judgment was appropriate.
Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.
Primas v. City of Milledgeville, Feb. 16, 2015, Georgia Supreme Court
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Moses v. Drake – Car Accident Injury to Pregnant Woman, Baby, Feb. 16, 2015, Rock Hill Car Accident Lawyer Blog