Obtaining recovery for physical injuries or property damage resulting from a car accident is often not a straightforward endeavor. Indeed, many drivers involved in car accidents expect to deal with some amount of insurance wrangling or, in more complex situations, litigation. However, as the plaintiff in a recent case before the Georgia Court of Appeals, Guice v. Brown, now realizes, the task can be even more complicated, simply depending on the identity of the other driver.
Guice started with a motor vehicle accident that occurred in Rockmart, Georgia. The plaintiff was driving westbound along Georgia 278 West. At that time, the driver of the other vehicle, a truck owned by the city of Rockmart, was leaving a shopping plaza located near where the driver of that vehicle had been installing stop signs. The driver of the truck had decided to go through the parking lot of the shopping plaza rather than navigating the roads around it. While leaving the plaza, the driver attempted to cut across several lanes of traffic in order to get into the left lane of Georgia 278 West. While attempting to do so, however, the truck driver collided with the plaintiff’s vehicle. The truck driver stated that he did not see the plaintiff’s vehicle prior to the impact and did not know which lane the plaintiff had been using.
The plaintiff brought suit against the truck driver, asserting various claims for negligence. Following the close of discovery, the truck driver moved for summary judgment, arguing that he was personally immune from liability pursuant to O.C.G.A. § 36-92-3(a), which provides:
“Any local government . . . employee who commits a tort involving the use of a covered motor vehicle while in the performance of . . . official duties is not subject to . . . liability.”
Representatives for the city of Rockmart testified that the truck driver would not be considered to be acting within the scope of his official duties if he were committing a criminal act or trespassing at the time of the accident, and the truck driver testified that he had not gotten permission to cut across the shopping center parking lot. The trial court initially granted the motion and ordered the plaintiff to join the city of Rockmart as a defendant to the action. The plaintiff failed to do so, but the trial court decided to vacate its prior ruling, finding that there were indeed genuine issues of material fact as to whether the defendant truck driver was acting within the scope of his employment at the time of the accident. The defendant appealed, arguing that the trial court erred when it vacated its prior ruling in favor of immunity.
On appeal, the plaintiff argued that the trial court’s second decision was not in error because there were issues of material fact regarding whether the truck driver, by traversing through the shopping center parking lot, was violating both state and local laws at the time of the accident. The Georgia Court of Appeals disagreed and reversed the trial court’s judgment.
First, with respect to the local ordinances that the truck driver purportedly violated, the Court of Appeals found that the plaintiff had not properly presented evidence of the local laws in order for the court to make a determination as to fault. Indeed, Georgia law requires that “[c]ity and county ordinances must be alleged and proven in order to be considered by the . . . courts” Whitfield v. City of Atlanta, 296 Ga. 641, 641-42 (2015). Unlike with state law, “[n]either [the appellate court] nor the trial court may take judicial notice of municipal ordinances[.]” Younger v. Dunagan, 318 Ga. App. 554, 556 (2012). Since the plaintiff did not present proper evidence of the local laws, the trial court could not consider them in rendering judgment.
Next, although the state laws were properly before the court, the court nevertheless determined that there was no issue of material fact as to whether the driver was violating them and thus engaged in conduct beyond the scope of his employment.
First, the plaintiff argued that the truck driver violated O.C.G.A. § 40-6-20(e), which prohibits “[t]he disregard or disobedience of the instructions of any official traffic-control device or signal.” The court found this argument without merit, since traversing a parking lot to avoid encountering a traffic signal could not be considered the same as actively disregarding a signal. Alternatively, the plaintiff argued that the truck driver violated O.C.G.A. § 16-7-21(b)(1), which prohibits someone from trespassing on the private property of another party for an unlawful purpose. However, the court noted the absence of evidence indicating the the truck driver entered the shopping center parking lot without authority or for an unlawful purpose. Indeed, the plaintiff did not provide evidence that the shopping center posted signs prohibiting this practice or otherwise instructed others not to do so. In addition, the plaintiff provided no evidence establishing that a criminal law was violated by cutting through the parking lot or that the driver was otherwise acting with an unlawful purpose. Accordingly, since the plaintiff had not shown that there was any issue of material fact as to whether the truck driver was violating a law at the time of the accident, it was clear that the driver was entitled to immunity under O.C.G.A. § 36-92-3(a) and that the trial court erred in vacating its prior order.
Although the plaintiff will likely be able to join the city as a defendant on remand, this case shows how one or two facts can turn what appears to be garden variety litigation into a more onerous undertaking involving immunity and municipal liability. Indeed, the facts in every accident are different, and the guidance of experienced counsel can be useful for those considering taking legal action to redress a harm. The Atlanta car accident attorneys at the Simon Law Firm have helped many injured Georgia drivers navigate the litigation process, and they are ready to offer their guidance. Indeed, if you have recently been harmed as a result of another driver’s possible negligence and are curious about the legal avenues you may have, feel free to contact us to set up a free case consultation.