Headlines in 2016 sparked an uproar across Georgia: a man stole a car near Atlanta airport, fled police in a high-speed chase, then crashed into another vehicle, killing a woman and her two grandchildren.
Six years later, the resulting negligence lawsuit against the city of College Park and its police department has finally come to an end. Georgia’s Supreme Court on Tuesday overturned an appeals court and ruled that the city’s insurance company should pay no more than $700,000 to the victims’ family.
Plaintiffs had sought $5 million, the limits of a city insurance policy underwritten by Atlantic Specialty Insurance Co. But the High Court said state law gave the city sovereign immunity for most damage and that the insurance policy did not cancel it.
“Because the Court of Appeals erroneously held that the city’s insurance policy increased the waiver of sovereign immunity notwithstanding the immunity notices, which expressly exclude coverage where a defense of sovereign immunity s ‘apply, we reverse,’ Chief Justice David Nahmias wrote in the notice.
Georgia law waives sovereign immunity up to $700,000. But the family’s attorneys argued that state law also says that when local governments carry liability insurance, the waiver is increased to the extent of the policy’s limits.
Minnesota-based Atlantic Specialty intervened in the lawsuit and argued that the immunity endorsement in the policy limited insurance payout.
“We have no obligation to pay ‘damages’ on your behalf under this policy unless the defenses of sovereign and governmental immunity are inapplicable to you,” reads the endorsement, quoted by the court.
Another section reads: The policy “does not constitute or reflect an intention by [the City]to waive or waive any sovereign and governmental immunity defenses available to any Insured, whether based on statute(s), common law or otherwise, including Georgia Code Section 36-33-1 , or any amendment. »
The plaintiffs argued that the immunity endorsements should be quashed because they are contrary to public order.
The court of first instance and the court of appeal agreed with the family. The intent of the Georgia legislature was to protect the public “by lifting the sovereign immunity of local government entities with respect to claims for negligent use of a motor vehicle and establishing limits on the amount of waiver in the event where the government entity purchases liability insurance,” the Court of Appeals noted in 2020.
In other words, giving full immunity to local police who engage in reckless pursuit would leave victims with little compensation, and Altantic Specialty’s argument ran counter to the clear legislative intent. of the General Assembly, said the court of appeal.
But the Supreme Court decided that under the law, immunity over $700,000 is only waived when the city takes out insurance over $700,000 for the type of claim at issue.
“The Court of Appeals misinterpreted OCGA § 36-92-2(d)(3) to mean that the purchase of liability insurance in excess of the statutory limit in paragraph (a) waives the ‘sovereign immunity to the limit of the insurance taken out for any sort of claim,’ the High Court wrote. ‘But an insurance policy does not normally provide comprehensive cover for all claims.’
The court found that because of the immunity endorsements in the city’s policy, “the city has not provided insurance coverage for plaintiffs’ claims beyond the applicable automatic waiver of immunity sovereign of $700,000”.
All the judges agreed with the opinion.
The man who stole the car in 2016 and allegedly caused the accident was only recently charged. Diontre Tigner was 16 at the time of the collision. According to reports, he walked away from the scene and somehow evaded arrest for six years, despite being on probation for another crime.
Tigner was arrested on December 23 and arraigned on January 26, according to local news reports.
Dorothy Wright, 75, her grandson Cameron Costner, 12, and her granddaughter Layla Partridge, 6, were killed in the accident. The family held a memorial service last month on the sixth anniversary of the fatal incident.
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