Car accidents with police officers can present numerous challenges for those injured in the crash. Chief among these challenges is the issue of sovereign immunity, which can make it quite difficult to pursue a claim against a negligent officer if they are operating within the course and scope of their duties. If an officer is in pursuit of a suspect or responding to a call for help and their blue lights are flashing, it is hard to bring an injury claim if you are struck and injured by a police cruiser during such an incident. Likewise, injuries resulting from crashes resulting during a police pursuit have an entire body of law protecting the officer if they are following department guidelines.
A recent Georgia case, however, illustrates one situation in which a claim is not be barred by immunity issues. Last week, two Paulding County teenagers were killed in a wreck involving a Georgia State Trooper traveling at a high speed for no apparent reason. The crash occurred on the night of Saturday October 3 on U.S. 27 northbound in Carroll County. The trooper, who was not on an emergency call, not responding to an accident, and not trying to stop a vehicle, was merely on patrol traveling over 90 mph on a stretch of road where the speed limit is 55pmh. Data from the crash shows that he was going 91 mph only five second before the fatal impact. The unfortunate victims in this tragedy were sitting in a Nissan Sentra, attempting to turn left in front of the path of the police cruiser, clearly not realizing that the trooper was traveling at such a high rate of speed. The trooper applied his brakes in an attempt to avoid the impact and had slowed to 68 mph just prior to the collision, but it was too little too late. Both backseat passengers in the Nissan were killed and the two other teenagers suffered serious injuries.
Sovereign immunity is waived for most vehicle accidents involving cities, counties and the state. State claims in particular are governed by the Georgia Tort Claims Act. The cap for GTCA claims is $1,000,000. See GTCA Liability Policy.
OCGA 50-21-26(a)(1) requires that sufficient warning or “ante litem” notice be delivered to the State within one year of the incident. The State specifically carves out things that it can never be sued for:
“50-21-24. Exceptions to state liability (Edited for relevance)
The state shall have no liability for losses resulting from:
(1) An act or omission by a state officer or employee exercising due care in the execution of a statute, regulation, rule, or ordinance, whether or not such statute, regulation, rule, or ordinance is valid;
(2) The exercise or performance of or the failure to exercise or perform a discretionary function or duty on the part of a state officer or employee, whether or not the discretion involved is abused;
(4) Legislative, judicial, quasi-judicial, or prosecutorial action or inaction;
(5) Administrative action or inaction of a legislative, quasi-legislative, judicial, or quasi-judicial nature;
(6) Civil disturbance, riot, insurrection, or rebellion or the failure to provide, or the method of providing, law enforcement, police, or fire protection;
(7) Assault, battery, false imprisonment, false arrest, malicious prosecution, abuse of process, libel, slander, or interference with contractual rights;
(8) Inspection powers or functions, including failure to make an inspection or making an inadequate or negligent inspection of any property other than property owned by the state to determine whether the property complies with or violates any law, regulation, code, or ordinance or contains a hazard to health or safety;
(9) Licensing powers or functions, including, but not limited to, the issuance, denial, suspension, or revocation of or the failure or refusal to issue, deny, suspend, or revoke any permit, license, certificate, approval, order, or similar authorization;
(10) The plan or design for construction of or improvement to highways, roads, streets, bridges, or other public works where such plan or design is prepared in substantial compliance with generally accepted engineering or design standards in effect at the time of preparation of the plan or design;”
Certainly, the nature of the accident presents some comparative negligence problems. The report initially claimed the Sentra failed to yield while turning left. However, further investigation revealed the trooper’s excessive speed was also a contributing factor. Any jury will understand that this crash would have never happened had it not been for the negligence of the officer. Though he has since been fired from the force, I would anticipate that his involvement with the subsequent civil actions that will be brought against him is just beginning.