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Georgia Court of Appeals Denies Sovereign Immunity to Officers Engaged in a High-Speed Chase After a Minor Traffic Stop

February 2, 2018

 

            Shirley and Nile Wingler were injured when a speeding car driven by a suspect who was fleeing law enforcement crashed into their car. The Winglers sued the sheriffs of Lamar and Monroe Counties in their official capacities (the “Lamar Sheriff” and “Monroe Sheriff”), and alleged that the actions of the sheriffs' deputies in initiating and continuing the high-speed car chase proximately caused their injuries.  Wingler v. White, 2017 WL 6046718 (Ga. Ct. App. 2017).  The high-speed chase started as a routine traffic stop by a Lamar deputy; however, the driver fled and quickly reached speeds of 120 mph.  As the pursuit continued, the Lamar deputy's patrol car hit the median and blew a tire, forcing the deputy to drop out of the chase. However, the Monroe deputies continued the chase for approximately 20 more miles. The chase ultimately covered 45 miles.

 

            The chase ended when the suspect sped through an intersection near Galleria Mall and collided with the Wingler’s car. The driver of the fleeing car was apprehended, and the deputies discovered a small bag of marijuana in his car and that he was driving with a suspended license. The Winglers alleged that sovereign immunity, otherwise afforded the defendant sheriffs when sued in their official capacities, was waived because the Wingler’s injuries arose out of the deputies' negligent use of county motor vehicles. See O.C.G.A. §§ 33-24-51 (b); 36-92-2 (a), (d). Additionally, the Winglers alleged that the deputies acted with reckless disregard for proper law enforcement procedures by initiating and continuing a dangerous high-speed chase based on a minor traffic offense. See O.C.G.A. § 40-6-6 (d) (2).

 

            The injury of an innocent third-party driver arising out of a police car chase is considered a loss “arising out of the negligent use of a covered motor vehicle” for purposes of OCGA § 33-24-51 (b), only where “an officer acted with reckless disregard for proper law enforcement procedures in pursuing a fleeing suspect.”  Wingler at *6. The the Court held that the Monroe deputies acted with reckless disregard of the Monroe County pursuit procedures in deciding to continue the chase of the driver through congested roads. The court based its decision on evidence that the dangerous pursuit was initiated based on a minor traffic violation and that the Monroe deputies were aware that there were no active warrants for the suspect.  Accordingly, the court denied summary judgment in favor of the Monroe Sheriff.

 

            However, as to the claims against the Lamar Sheriff, the court pointed out an injury sustained while a county motor vehicle is “immobile and undergoing maintenance” does not arise out of the “use” of the vehicle. Columbus Consolidated Govt. v. Woody, 342 Ga. App. 233, 238, 802 S.E.2d 717 (2017).  Therefore, the court found that because the Lamar deputy was forced to end his pursuit of the driver, that sovereign immunity was not waived. 

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