When you hear about a lawsuit involving a car accident in Georgia, you normally assume it involves someone suing a negligent driver. But there are non-driver third parties whose negligence may have caused or contributed to an accident. For example, in many cases an accident is the result of a defect in the design or manufacture of one of the vehicles–or a specific part within that vehicle–and the manufacturer may be sued under Georgia product liability law.
It may also be that the roadway the vehicles were traveling on was defective in some aspect. In that scenario, the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) or a city or county government may be held liable for civil damages to the victims and their families. But suing a governmental body is far more complicated than suing a negligent private driver. This is because of an ancient legal concept known as sovereign immunity.
Essentially, you cannot sue the government in its own courts without its consent. In this context, consent means that the Georgia General Assembly has adopted a statute expressly waiving sovereign immunity. Like most states, the General Assembly has passed just such a waiver with respect to personal injury and negligence claims. This waiver is contained in the Georgia Tort Claims Act (GTCA).
Georgia Court of Appeals: Parents of Accident Victim May Sue State Over Alleged Failure to Inspect Intersection
The GTCA commonly comes into play when a negligent driver working for the state causes an accident. But what about a case where GDOT was negligent in designing or maintaining a road? A recent decision from the Georgia Court of Appeals, Munro v. Georgia Department of Transportation, provides some useful context in answering these questions.
This is a pending wrongful death lawsuit brought by the parents of a woman who died in a car accident. The victim was a passenger in a vehicle that collided with a tractor trailer at an intersection. The parents sued GDOT, alleging it was negligent in the design, installation, maintenance, and inspection of the intersection.
GDOT argued that sovereign immunity barred the parents’ claims. Although the GTCA does waive sovereign immunity in personal injury and wrongful death cases, GDOT pointed to an exception to that waiver. This exception states that the State of Georgia cannot be held liable for any losses arising from the “plan or design for construction of or improvement to highways, roads, streets, bridges, or other public works,” provided such plan or design complies with the generally accepted standards of engineering in effect at the time.
In response, the parents argued the waiver did not apply precisely because GDOT did not follow the accepted standards of engineering when designing this particular intersection. The parents produced an expert witness to substantiate their claim. But a Superior Court judge rejected the expert’s testimony and dismissed the lawsuit on sovereign immunity grounds.
The parents appealed. While the Court of Appeals upheld the trial judge’s decision to exclude the expert witness, it also found that did not defeat all of the parent’s claims. It only defeated claims alleging negligent design of the intersection. But It did not defeat claims alleging “negligent inspection.” Under the GTCA, the State of Georgia waives sovereign immunity for personal injury claims arising from a state employee’s failure to inspect state-owned property “to determine whether the property complies with or violates any law, regulation, code, or ordinance or contains a hazard to health or safety.”
GDOT conceded this point but insisted it was still entitled to a dismissal of the parents’ negligent inspection claim as it was “inextricably intertwined with their negligent-design claim.” The Court of Appeals rejected that argument. It noted the parents’ complaint alleged that GDOT “failed to inspect the intersection to ensure that the intersection was properly maintained by the removal of hazardous vegetation.” That was wholly separate from their argument regarding the negligent design of the intersection. So they could proceed with their wrongful death claim on that basis.
Special Deadlines Apply to Car Accident Lawsuits Against the State
Aside from the question of whether a waiver of sovereign immunity applies to a particular case, if you do need to file a car accident lawsuit against a state or local government, you need to be aware of certain other procedural requirements mandated by the GTCA. This includes special time limits that do not apply to other kinds of personal injury cases.
Normally, you must give written notice to the government body you plan to sue. This notice must be given before you file any lawsuit. The reason for this is that the state must have an opportunity to review the personal injury claim and decide whether it wants to offer a settlement.
For claims arising from a car accident, this notice must usually be given within 12 months of the date of the accident. The notice must provide certain details, including the time and date of the accident, and the specific amount of compensation that you are seeking from the state. If the state decides to try and settle your claim, you are not required to accept their offer. If the state denies your claim outright–or 90 days passes and you do not receive any response–then you can go ahead and file a lawsuit. It should be noted that the GTCA caps the state’s liability at $1 million for a single wrongful act or $3 million in aggregate liability.
Contact Stewart Miller Simmons Trial Attorneys Today
Anytime that you, or someone that you love, has been seriously injured in a car accident, it is important to seek timely legal advice. A qualified Atlanta car accident attorney can review your case and conduct a full investigation on your behalf into all of the parties who may be legally liable for your damages. This can include other drivers, auto manufacturers, and even the State of Georgia itself.
So if you need to speak with a lawyer as soon as possible, call Stewart Miller Simmons Trial Attorneys today at (404) 529-3476 or contact us online to schedule a free initial consultation and case evaluation.