ATLANTA — The Georgia Supreme Court laid down what one Atlanta area attorney described as a "bright line" on how much you can get from a city in damages if you sue one.
In an opinion issued Tuesday, the Georgia Supreme Court sided with an insurance company in a dispute about how much an insurance policy held by the city of College Park should cover in a wrongful death lawsuit over a police chase leading to the deaths in 2016 of a grandmother and two children.
At issue was whether state law allowed for the city, through its insurance policy, to be held liable for the deaths beyond a standard limit established under a Georgia statute.
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The city had held a $5 million policy, which lawyers for the family argued waived the city's ability to be held to a $700,000 cap in their case. That limit is set under a Georgia law meant to serve as a standard waiver of sovereign immunity legal provisions that would otherwise bar anyone from suing a city at all. The cap varies by severity of incident.
Sovereign immunity is the legal doctrine that basically holds a city or state or national government cannot be sued, unless it allows for lawsuits in some way. In Georgia the law is structured so that local governments can be sued - but only up for a certain amount of money.
What you can sue for
- $50,000 for property damage
- $500,000 for bodily injury or death to one person
- $700,000 for bodily injury or death to two or more persons
In the College Park case, the insurance company argued that their policy was only designed to cover the city beyond $700,000 on matters for which sovereign immunity did not apply. The Georgia Supreme Court agreed, holding that the mere existence of the policy did not waive sovereign immunity beyond $700,000, overruling earlier decisions by the original trial court and Georgia Court of Appeals in favor of the $5 million figure.
That decision has far-reaching implications for any other instances in which someone might be suing a city or county in Georgia.
Previously, Atlanta area attorney Manny Arora said lawyers could go after a full insurance policy.
“Cities, police, everybody else is protected from being sued - that is generally how it works," he told 11Alive's Joe Henke about sovereign immunity. “There are exceptions to it. Our state legislature has given a $700,000 exception for misconduct that takes place or negligence. However in this case they had a $5 million policy. Normally if you have a policy above the $700,000, the person that has been wronged can ask for that entire amount. But today, the Supreme Court has said anything past that $700,000 doesn’t apply in this case. Anything above the $700,000 is covered by the immunity that city governments, police, everything else get no matter the level of misconduct.”
Now the state Supreme Court has held that unless a city were to somehow have a policy that specifically included a type of misconduct - like a police chase gone wrong - there's no way to go above the limits.
Arora said it was a "bright line rule put down."
"Unless that additional insurance is specifically for something they listed, such as the situation like this in a car chase, a general insurance policy you can't get after it," he said. "You're capped out at $700,000 whether it is two people, three people or 50 people that died."
He said the Georgia Supreme Court weighing in so conclusively on the matter makes it "kind of a landmark case."
"The Supreme Court has said this should have always been the rules, but historically lawyers - if there was insurance beyond $700,000 - have been able to get after it. But today they made it clear unless that extra insurance is specifically for this type of situation, a general liability policy isn’t going to cover it," he said. "So unfortunately those three people or their family aren’t going to be able to collect what I think would be the full value of the policy.”
Arora added: "You are pretty much capped out at $700,000 and the Supreme Court made that abundantly clear. We used to be able to sue for the entire policy limit, but that has been shut down as of this opinion.”
The only way now for that to change would be for the state legislature, the Georgia General Assembly, to write new laws.