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Georgia Courts Partially Grant Official Immunity in a Wrongful Death Suit

Arising out of a wrongful death suit, the Court of Appeals partially reversed the grant of summary judgment for the defendants, and further defined what acts qualify for official immunity. Hill v. Jackson, 783 S.E.2d 719 (Ga. Ct. App. 2016).

Richard W. Hill Jr., while in custody in the Fulton County jail, committed suicide. His daughter, Gabrielle Hill, sued Fulton County Sheriff Theodore Jackson, Nitosha Riley, Latessa Robertson, Milton Weaver, Charles Martin, Andrea Thomas, Charlene Dumas, Correctional Medical Associates, Inc., and Stephanie Bennett relating to her father’s death. Riley, Robertson, Weaver, Martin, and Thomas were employees of the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office, and Hill sued each defendant in their individual capacity. Based on the pleadings, the Court determined that Sheriff Jackson was also sued in his individual capacity. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of all of the defendants, and the Court of Appeals affirmed that decision with an exception to Weaver and Riley.

The Court found that Weaver was not entitled to official immunity due to a suicide watch order that had established a ministerial duty for Weaver to follow. A ministerial act is commonly one that is simple, absolute, and definite, arising under conditions admitted or proved to exist, and requiring merely the execution of a specific duty. Id. A public official, while performing a ministerial act in their individual capacity, is not entitled to official immunity. The Court also found that Riley’s duty to copy information onto an inmate’s information card was simple, absolute, definite, and arose under conditions which require the mere execution of an act. By this definition the Court held that Riley’s duties were also ministerial and not entitled to official immunity.

The Court held that the other defendants were entitled to official immunity due to their duties being defined as discretionary. A discretionary act calls for the exercise of personal deliberation and judgment, which in turn entails examining the facts, reaching reasoned conclusions, and acting on them in a way not specifically directed. Id. The Court noted that the outcome may have been different if Sheriff Jackson was sued in his official capacity; however, that analysis was not necessary under the current suit. In summary, this case indicates the discretion that is provided to the Court for determining which acts are ministerial versus discretionary. It is important for employers and individuals to fully understand their specific job duties and what the consequences are for work place incidents.

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