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Sovereign Immunity Available to Local Government Officers or Employees Extends to Sheriff’s Deputies

March 7, 2018

            On the evening of March 31, 2014, Steven Davis was driving through Calhoun, Georgia, when he stopped at an intersection making a left-hand turn. When Davis began turning his truck, Gordon County Deputy Sheriff Richard Morrison, who was driving a county-owned vehicle on his way to the sheriff's office's evidence room, attempted to pass him and collided into his driver's side door. As a result of the collision, Davis suffered injuries to his back, neck, leg, and shoulder. Davis then sued Morrison and Gordon County (the “County”), alleging that his injuries were caused by Morrison's negligent driving of a county-owned vehicle.  Davis v. Morrison, 2018 WL 796323 (Ga. Ct. App. 2018).

 

            Morrison and the County argued that Davis's claim against Morrison was barred by O.C.G.A. § 36-92-3(a), that the County could not be held vicariously liable for Morrison's negligence, and that Davis failed to timely send an ante-litem notice to Sheriff Mitch Ralston which barred any claim that Ralston was vicariously liable for Morrison's negligence. Davis conceded that he did not comply with the ante-litem requirements; however, he claimed that his service of notice upon various County officials was sufficient. The Court was not persuaded and held that claims against a sheriff are not sustainable without proper ante-litem notice.

 

            As to the claim against Morrison, it was undisputed that Morrison was employed as a Gordon County sheriff's deputy and that he was driving a county-owned vehicle to the sheriff's office's evidence room when he struck Davis’s truck. “Any local government officer or employee who commits a tort involving the use of a covered motor vehicle while in the performance of his or her official duties is not subject to lawsuit or liability therefor.”  See O.C.G.A. § 36-92-3(a).  Therefore, under the plain language of the statute, Morrison was not subject to liability for the accident, and Davis's claims against him were barred.  Davis attempted to argue that because sheriff's offices are not included in the definition of local government entities, then sheriff's deputies cannot be characterized as a “[l]ocal government officer or employee,” which is defined as “an officer, agent, servant, attorney, or employee of a local government entity.” See O.C.G.A. § 36-92-1(4); O.C.G.A. § 36-92-2(a).  Again, Davis’s argument was unpersuasive and the Court held that O.C.G.A. § 36-92-2(a) applied to a claim against a county sheriff's deputy for negligent use of a county-owned motor vehicle; therefore, the county sheriff would be precluded from asserting sovereign immunity as a defense.  

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