Limits on Use of Vehicle Sovereign Immunity Waiver
Officer Lorne Alston (“Alston”), employed by the City of Roswell (“City”) Police Department, was driving his patrol car when he learned of a high-speed pursuit in progress. Alston realized that the pursuit was heading toward his area, so he drove to a nearby intersection ahead of the chase and parked and exited his vehicle. He also obtained “Stop Sticks” from the trunk. Alston remained behind his vehicle and, when the suspect approached, the suspect swerved to avoid the Stop Sticks. The suspect lost control of his vehicle and struck Clementina Hernandez-Flores (“Hernandez-Flores”), causing her to suffer major injuries. Hernandez-Flores then filed a negligence suit against the City. At the summary judgment stage, the City claimed it was entitled to sovereign immunity; the trial court denied the motion; and the City appealed. City of Roswell v. Hernandez-Flores, 365 Ga. App. 849 (2022).
Specifically, the trial court found issues of fact as to whether Alston's “efforts to assist in the chase by using his patrol car to drive to the intersection, his use of the police car to monitor the chase on his radio, his use of the [S]top [S]ticks mounted in the police car's trunk and his deployment of the [S]top [S]ticks while standing behind the police car” constituted “use of the police car” for purposes of waiving sovereign immunity. To meet her burden, Hernandez-Flores alleged that Alston used his car as a vehicle when he (1) monitored the high-speed chase while in the car; (2) stored the Stop Sticks in the trunk of the car; and (3) stood behind the vehicle as he deployed the Stop Sticks.
On appeal, the court’s analysis was “strictly construed against finding a waiver” of sovereign immunity. The court found that Alston's use of his vehicle to drive to the intersection was too attenuated and remote from the harm to Hernandez-Flores to waive immunity – it was already parked on the side of the road when she was injured. In addition, the Stop-Sticks were in use and not just stored in his vehicle. (One might also argue that the deployment of the stop sticks from the vehicle did not, itself, cause an injury). Lastly, the fleeing suspect’s vehicle swerved to avoid the Stop-Sticks, not Alston's vehicle; therefore, the vehicle did not contribute to Hernandez-Flores’ injuries. As such, the court found no waiver and reversed the trial court’s denial of summary judgment.