The scope of police authority in interactions with citizens has been a commonly discussed topic in media coverage in recent months. Although at the forefront of the modern discussion, the use of force is not a novel concept in the law. Indeed, law enforcement use of force is among the more commonly litigated issues in both state and federal court, and as many lawyers know, officers have some immunity from suit. This immunity, official immunity, is an affirmative defense, and the scope of the immunity is almost invariably at issue in cases brought against law enforcement. As demonstrated in the Georgia Court of Appeals’ recent decision in Vidal v. Leavell, the scope of official immunity is quite broad under Georgia law, a reality for which potential litigants should be prepared.
The facts at issue in Vidal occurred on April 23, 2011. On that day, the plaintiff in this case was at an IHOP in Buckhead with a friend. Shortly after being seated, the plaintiff noticed that the defendant in this case, an off-duty police officer hired by IHOP to provide security, approached a booth occupied by a group of young women. The plaintiff said she could not hear what words were being exchanged between the officer and the women but that she did see the officer force himself into the booth and push two of the women into the wall. The officer was attempting to arrest the patrons in the booth, and the plaintiff began to videotape the incident because she believed the officer was acting too aggressively. Another officer arrived and apparently engaged the defendant to halt his interaction with the patrons. The plaintiff testified that she touched the officer so that he would realize she was recording him. The officer then slapped the plaintiff, and the video shows that the plaintiff then took retaliatory swings at the officer. While the second officer held her arms back, the officer punched the plaintiff in the head and then threw her to the floor, dragged her to the door, and handcuffed her. The plaintiff was arrested for obstruction and assault. Other patrons at the IHOP videotaped the incident.
The plaintiff then brought suit against the officer for, inter alia, negligence, battery, unconstitutional arrest, and excessive force. Following discovery, the officer moved for summary judgment, arguing that he was immune from liability because his acts fall within the bounds of official immunity. Without opinion, the trial court denied the motion, and the officer brought this interlocutory appeal. On appeal, the officer argued that the trial court erred in denying his motion for summary judgment. The Georgia Court of Appeals agreed and reversed the trial court.
Official immunity provides public officers and employee limited immunity from suit. Williams v. Pauley, 331 Ga. App. 129, 130 (2015). “Under Georgia law, a public officer or employee may be personally liable only for ministerial acts negligently performed or acts performed with malice or an intent to injure.” Id. There was no dispute the officer’s conduct was discretionary in nature, see, e.g., Valades v. Uslu, 301 Ga. App. 885, 890 (2) (2009) (noting that “arresting a person for conduct occurring in an officer’s presence is a discretionary act”), and therefore official immunity shields the officer from liability unless he performed the arrest with “malice or intent to injure,” id. A plaintiff cannot show malice or intent to injure based simply on ill will. Instead, a plaintiff must show that the officer “acted with the deliberate intent to commit a wrongful act or with the deliberate intent to harm.” Anderson v. Cobb, 258 Ga. App. 159, 160 (2) (2002). One must show “intent to cause the harm suffered,” Selvy v. Morrison, 292 Ga. App. 702, 704-05 (2008), which is beyond implied malice, “mean[ing] conduct exhibiting a reckless disregard for human life,” Phillips v. Hanse, 281 Ga. 133, 135 (2) (637 SE2d 11) (2006).
Applying the foregoing standards, the Court of Appeals determined that there was no evidence from which a reasonable jury could conclude there was malice or intent to injure. In particular, the Court of Appeals noted the officer’s testimony that the arrest was occasioned by the plaintiff grabbing him while he was attempting to arrest the patrons in the booth and thereafter swinging at him several times. Based on this evidence, the Court of Appeals determined that no reasonable finder of fact could reasonably conclude that the officer deliberately intended to commit a wrongful act when he arrested the plaintiff. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s denial of summary judgment.
As this case demonstrates, the scope of immunity afforded to law enforcement conduct is quite broad. Indeed, although some would consider the degree of force used here to exceed what was necessary, official immunity typically immunizes such excess unless there is a showing of malice or intent to injure. It can be difficult to adduce evidence that an officer’s acts were malicious or intentionally injurious. Accordingly, given the breadth of official immunity, those harmed as a result of an officer’s or other government actor’s conduct should find experienced counsel who can help him or her accurately assess the viability of a prospective claim. The Atlanta personal injury attorneys at the Simon Law Firm have considerable experience litigating negligence claims in state and federal courts, and they have an understanding of the importance of official immunity in cases involving government actors. If you have a possible claim involving the acts of a government agent and are curious about the strength of the claim or the impact of various immunity doctrines, feel free to contact us for a free case consultation.