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How a Single Word Can Affect Your Georgia Wrongful Death Lawsuit

When a person dies as the result of a negligent or intentional act of another, Georgia law permits the victim’s spouse, children, or parents to file a wrongful death claim against the wrongdoer. A wrongful death lawsuit enables the family to seek damages for the future income the victim would have earned had they survived, as well as compensation for the survivors’ own grief and loss of their loved one’s guidance, support, and consortium.

A potential complication in a Georgia wrongful death lawsuit is when the alleged wrongdoer was a government employee acting within the scope of their employment. For example, if someone is killed in a car accident caused by an Atlanta employee driving their official vehicle on the job, the family can sue the city and seek compensation through a wrongful death lawsuit. But there are special rules that must be followed. And the right to pursue a wrongful death claim against the government is by design heavily restricted. That is why it is important to consult with an experienced Atlanta wrongful death attorney if you are involved in such a scenario.

Georgia Supreme Court Revives Wrongful Death Case Over Man Who Died While Tased, Restrained in Police Car

A recent decision from the Supreme Court of Georgia, McBrayer v. Scarborough, illustrates the complexities that families can face when pursuing justice in wrongful death cases. This particular wrongful death lawsuit involved the “use” of a car owned by a Georgia sheriff’s office. But the victim’s death was not the result of a traffic accident. Rather, the victim died while being held in the back of a police car.

In April 2019, deputies employed by the Tift County Sheriff’s Office tasered the victim. The deputies then restrained the victim’s hands and feet and placed him horizontally into the back of a patrol car. The deputies then left the victim unattended for several minutes, during which time he died. A subsequent autopsy determined the death was the “result of excited delirium which was secondary to being tased.”

The victim’s widow subsequently filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Tift County sheriff. The lawsuit alleged the sheriff’s deputies were negligent in their “use of a motor vehicle” under OCGA 36-92-2. Specifically, the deputies had placed the victim face down in the back seat of the patrol car after using excessive force against him, and they also used the rear door of the vehicle “to hold a cobble strap that was attached to the [victim’s] feet.”

A Georgia Superior Court judge dismissed the widow’s lawsuit, however, holding that these allegations did not present a claim that the victim died due to the negligent “use” of the patrol car. The Georgia Court of Appeals later upheld that decision. But the Georgia Supreme Court reversed, holding that the wrongful death claim could proceed.

This case turned on the definition of the word “use.” To understand why, it is useful to explain how personal injury claims work when the government is the defendant. Normally, you cannot sue the State of Georgia or any of its subdivisions–such as a local sheriff–unless the General Assembly has passed a law explicitly permitting such a claim. Under the Georgia Constitution, the state has “sovereign immunity” from civil lawsuits. This immunity dates back to ancient principles of English common law. And it remains part of present-day common law in Georgia and the United States.

Most states, including Georgia, have adopted legislative waivers of sovereign immunity with respect to certain types of personal injury claims. OCGA 36-92-2 is just such a waiver. It allows individuals to sue a local government entity “for a loss arising out of claims for the negligent use of a covered motor vehicle” up to a certain limit. In the case of a wrongful death involving a single person, that limit is $500,000.

In this case, the sheriff argued–and the trial court and the Court of Appeals agreed–that OCGA 36-92-2 did not apply because the victim’s death did not arise from the “use” of a motor vehicle as that term was ordinarily defined. In other words, the victim’s death was not the result of a traffic accident that occurred while the patrol car was in use on the road. The widow, in contrast, argued that the term “use” should be interpreted as defined by the auto insurance policy on the patrol car. (This also matters because if a local government takes out auto insurance for a covered vehicle, sovereign immunity is waived up to the amount of the policy limit.)

The Supreme Court disagreed with both approaches. Instead, it said the “use of a covered motor vehicle” in this context did “embrace uses of a motor vehicle that extend beyond mere transportation.” So the vehicle did not have to be actively in use on the road. The waiver of sovereign immunity could apply to other situations where the vehicle was used for some other purpose.

Here, the widow’s lawsuit alleged the negligence occurred when the sheriff’s deputies “detained the decedent in their patrol car.” Detaining suspects is an intended use of a patrol car, as was the “loading” of a suspect into the vehicle. As such, the Supreme Court said a plaintiff could pursue a wrongful death lawsuit based on the use of a police car in this manner.

Contact Stewart Miller Simmons Trial Attorneys Today

Wrongful death lawsuits always pose a number of legal challenges. Even in cases against private parties, where sovereign immunity is not a barrier to overcome, it is often difficult for the families of victims to gather all of the evidence they need to make a compelling case. This is why it is essential to work with an experienced Atlanta wrongful death attorney who can guide you through each stage of the process.

No amount of money can undo the loss of a close family member. But by holding those responsible for the death legally–and financially–accountable, you can bring some measure of peace to your family as they look to rebuild from their loss. So if you need to speak with an attorney right away, call Stewart Miller Simmons Trial Attorneys at (404) 529-3476 today to schedule a free case evaluation.

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