Georgia Court of Appeals Addresses Scope of Firearm-Related Tort Immunity

gunIn 2008, the Georgia legislature enacted the “Business Security and Employee Privacy Act,” O.C.G.A. § 16-11-135, which generally prohibits an employer from restricting an employee from bringing a licensed firearm onto the employer’s parking lot. In addition to protecting employees’ right to bring firearms onto business property under certain circumstances, the law immunizes businesses from criminal or civil liability arising from “the transportation, storage, possession, or use” of such firearms. O.C.G.A. § 16-11-135 (e). Although there are numerous exceptions under the Act, liability associated with employee firearm injuries is far more circumscribed than it was previously. For instance, in a recent decision, Lucas v. Beckman Coulter, Inc., the Georgia Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of claims against an employer whose employee shot someone else while making a delivery.

The shooting at issue in Lucas occurred on July 10, 2013. On that day, a field-service engineer employed by Beckman Coulter, Inc. (“BCI”), a biomedical testing equipment company, arrived at Albany Area Primary Healthcare (“AAPH”), where the engineer was scheduled to perform maintenance work on BCI equipment located at the facility. Upon his arrival at the facility, which was around 10:00 a.m., the field-service agent observed that the equipment on which he was supposed to perform maintenance was in use and returned to the parking lot to wait. When he returned to the parking lot, the field-service agent saw an AAPH lab technician with whom he was familiar taking a break. The two chatted for a few minutes, and while they were returning inside AAPH, the lab technician mentioned that there had been a spate of car burglaries in the parking lot. This news concerned the field-service engineer, for although it violated BCI policy, he often carried his personal firearm in the company vehicle while making service stops and was worried that it might be stolen. Accordingly, upon hearing this information, the field-service engineer returned to the BCI vehicle to retrieve his gun. Shortly after entering the building, the field-service engineer attempted to clear his weapon, but as he was doing so, the gun discharged, which resulted in a bullet striking the field-service engineer in the hand and the lab technician in the abdomen.

Following the accident, the lab technician brought suit against the field-service engineer and BCI, alleging that his injuries were a result of the field-service engineer’s negligence and that his employer was liable under theories of respondeat superior and negligent supervision. At the conclusion of discovery, BCI moved for summary judgment with respect to the claims asserted against it, arguing that it was immune under O.C.G.A. § 16-11-135 (e) and that even if it were not entitled to immunity, it was entitled to summary judgment because it was not liable under theories of respondeat superior and negligent supervision as a matter of law. The trial court granted the motion, and the plaintiff appealed.

In relevant part, O.C.G.A. § 16-11-135 (e) provides that:

“No employer . . .  shall be held liable in any criminal or civil action for damages resulting from or arising out of an occurrence involving the transportation, storage, possession, or use of a firearm, including, but not limited to, the theft of a firearm from an employee’s automobile . . .  unless such employer commits a criminal act involving the use of a firearm or . . . the employer knew that the person . . . would commit such criminal act on the employer’s premises.”

It was undisputed that the case arose from the field-service engineer’s possession of a licensed firearm and that the shooting was not a criminal act by either the field-service engineer or BCI. Notwithstanding the breadth of this immunity provision, the plaintiff maintained that the incident in question was not covered by the plain terms of the statute. The Court of Appeals, however, found these arguments unavailing.

Specifically, the plaintiff cited several other provisions of O.C.G.A. § 16-11-135 in an effort to show the immunity provision was limited to firearms held in an employee’s personal vehicle rather than those carried in vehicles owned by the employer. However, the Court of Appeals noted that the provision cited by the plaintiff explicitly limited the exclusion of employer-provided vehicles from a separate section of § 16-11-135, rather than the immunity provision outlined in § 16-11-135 (e). Accordingly, the Court of Appeals ruled that the plain language of § 16-11-135 (e) clearly encompassed the shooting at issue and that the trial court did not err in granting BCI’s motion for summary judgment.

Even though the court’s ruling only applied to claims against BCI rather than the claims brought against the field-service technician directly, the claims against the corporation were important because many employees are financially unable to satisfy a judgment. O.C.G.A. § 16-11-135 is just one of many immunity provisions under Georgia law, and those with a possible negligence claim should always consider finding counsel experienced in the legal nuances of all the possible claims they may have. An Atlanta premises liability attorney at the Simon Law Firm is prepared to provide assistance with a possible claim. Indeed, if you’ve been injured as a result of possible negligence and are curious about the legal options you may have, feel free to contact us to schedule a free case evaluation.

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