School Employees Shielded by Official Immunity When Sued Over School Parking Permits
On May 10, 2017, high school student Lily Price was standing in the school parking lot waiting for a ride when fellow student Bryce Burrell backed his vehicle into her, knocked her down, and ran over her leg. After the accident it was revealed that Burrell's father owned the car and that Bryce was specifically excluded from driving it under his father's insurance policy. As such, no liability coverage existed.
Price's mother then sued the high school's principal, an assistant principal, and the school bookkeeper. The suit alleged the bookkeeper, who approved parking applications at the school, had a ministerial duty to verify Burrell's insurance during the application process and that the principal and assistant principal failed to properly supervise the bookkeeper to ensure that process.
At deposition, the bookkeeper testified she confirmed the vehicle listed on the parking application matched the vehicle listed on Burrell's insurance policy card. The school employees then moved for summary judgment because the parking permit application process created a discretionary, not ministerial, duty for the bookkeeper and, as such, without a showing of actual malice, the employees should be shielded by official immunity. It was denied and this appeal followed.
The parties agreed that there was no district manual or formal training on how parking permits are to be issued. Instead, the plaintiff argued that the application itself and the accompanying rules and regulations on campus parking created a ministerial duty for employees to verify insurance.
Writing for the panel, Judge Pipkin noted that the Court must look to the application and rules as to whether the language used mandates a simple, absolute, definite action that would be devoid of any discretion on the part of the employee. Here, the parking rules simply state "proof of insurance and a current Georgia driver's license as required by state law shall be required prior to the assignment of a parking space." The application also has a line for staff to indicate they have "verified" an applicant's insurance. Judge Pipkin wrote that the rules and application do not specify the directives to any certain employee or employment position, the application leaves the word "verify" open to interpretation, and both the application and rules are vague as to what constitutes proof of insurance. Without such clear, definitive guidance, the employee is therefore left with his/her discretion and, absent a showing of malice or an actual intent to injure, official immunity shields him/her from any liability for his/her allegedly negligent actions.
The Georgia Court of Appeals opinion can be found at https://law.justia.com/cases/georgia/court-of-appeals/2021/a21a0023.html.
KIMBERLY MARIE ERICKSON EX REL LILY MARIE PRICE v. JEANNE WALKER ET AL.