Governmental Liability

At Finch McCranie LLP, our personal injury attorneys receive many phone calls from victims in Atlanta and throughout the State of Georgia who have been injured because of negligence by a state or federal government agency. The first issue that our lawyers always address is: Does sovereign immunity rule out filing a personal injury claim against the agency?

Sovereign immunity is an ancient doctrine that originated from English common law. In the United States, sovereign immunity means that a government body cannot be sued for personal injury negligence without its permission.

Legislators, scholars, and judges have acknowledged the injustice and unfairness created by the doctrine of sovereign immunity. There are many exceptions to the sovereign immunity rule because of this. For example, the Federal Tort Claims Act lets an injured person demand recovery from the federal government under specific circumstances. You could, for instance, file a personal injury claim under this act against the government if you sustained injuries in a car accident that occurred because a U.S. Postal Service truck driver was negligent.

The Georgia Tort Claims Act, adopted by the Georgia legislature, applies only to state government agencies and not to county or city agencies. This means that the Georgia Tort Claims Act does not cover many kinds of governmental actions, which are therefore still protected by sovereign immunity.

In an urban environment like Atlanta, it is almost an everyday occurrence to witness a first responder emergency vehicle (typically with lights flashing & sirens blaring) speeding through city streets. The more prudent drivers of these emergency vehicles remain aware of their surroundings and slow down as they approach intersections to make sure they are clear so they may safely proceed with their emergency response. Regrettably, this does not always happen and collisions involving innocent third parties occur. In Georgia, there is a statutory remedy for innocent third parties injured in such incidents. The same statute, however, also provides legal protection for emergency vehicle operators.

Whether the emergency vehicle is a firetruck, a police vehicle, or an EMT ambulance, the law concerning tort liability for emergency vehicle operation is governed by O.C.G.A. § 40-6-6. O.C.G.A. § 40-6-6 is a critical statute in understanding tort liability for first responders and emergency vehicle operators. It reads in full:

  1. The driver of an authorized emergency vehicle or law enforcement vehicle, when responding to an emergency call, when in the pursuit of an actual or suspected violator of the law, or when responding to but not upon returning from a fire alarm, may exercise the privileges set forth in this Code section.
  2. The driver of an authorized emergency vehicle or law enforcement vehicle may:
    1. Park or stand, irrespective of the provisions of this chapter;
    2. Proceed past a red or stop signal or stop sign, but only after slowing down as may be necessary for safe operation;
    3. Exceed the maximum speed limits so long as he or she does not endanger life or property; and
    4. Disregard regulations governing direction of movement or turning in specified directions.
  3. The exceptions granted by this Code section to an authorized emergency vehicle shall apply only when such vehicle is making use of an audible signal and use of a flashing or revolving red light visible under normal atmospheric conditions from a distance of 500 feet to the front of such vehicle, except that a vehicle belonging to a federal, state, or local law enforcement agency and operated as such shall be making use of an audible signal and a flashing or revolving blue light with the same visibility to the front of the vehicle.
    1. The foregoing provisions shall not relieve the driver of an authorized emergency vehicle from the duty to drive with due regard for the safety of all persons.
    2. When a law enforcement officer in a law enforcement vehicle is pursuing a fleeing suspect in another vehicle and the fleeing suspect damages any property or injures or kills any person during the pursuit, the law enforcement officer’s pursuit shall not be the proximate cause or a contributing proximate cause of the damage, injury, or death caused by the fleeing suspect unless the law enforcement officer acted with reckless disregard for proper law enforcement procedures in the officer’s decision to initiate or continue the pursuit. Where such reckless disregard exists, the pursuit may be found to constitute a proximate cause of the damage, injury, or death caused by the fleeing suspect, but the existence of such reckless disregard shall not in and of itself establish causation.
    3. The provisions of this subsection shall apply only to issues of causation and duty and shall not affect the existence or absence of immunity which shall be determined as otherwise provided by law.
    4. Claims arising out of this subsection which are brought against local government entities, their officers, agents, servants, attorneys, and employees shall be subject to the procedures and limitations contained in Chapter 92 of Title 36.
  4. It shall be unlawful for any person to operate an authorized emergency vehicle with flashing lights other than as authorized by subsection (c) of this Code section.
O.C.G.A. § 40-6-6 (2002) (Emphasis Supplied)

As indicated by the language of the statute itself, while emergency vehicle operators may legally exceed the posted speed limit and are granted other exceptions under the law to disregard traffic control devices, there are limits to these privileges. As set forth in subsection (b)(3) of the statute, all first responders, even if their lights and sirens are displayed and audible, must not “endanger life or property” in the operation of their vehicles. Moreover, even though first responders are authorized to exceed posted speed limits and proceed past designated stop signs and red lights when responding to an “emergency,” they still must exercise “due regard for the safety of all persons.” O.C.G.A. § 40-6-6(d)(1).

Contact Finch McCranie Today for a Free Consultation

Our Atlanta police pursuit lawyers regularly handle cases involving innocent third-parties who have been injured as a result of a high-speed police pursuit. Many personal injury lawyers in Atlanta and throughout the State of Georgia have referred these types of cases to our firm. If you or a loved one have been injured as a result of a police pursuit in Atlanta or anywhere in Georgia, contact Finch McCranie LLP today. You can contact us online or call us at (404) 658-9070. One of our Atlanta police pursuit lawyers will be happy to provide you with a free consultation.

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