The headlines in 2016 provoked an outcry across Georgia: A man stole a car near the Atlanta airport, fled from police in a high-speed chase, then crashed into another vehicle, killing a woman and her two grandchildren.
Six years later, the resulting negligence lawsuit against the city of College Park and its police department has finally come to a conclusion. The Georgia Supreme Court on Tuesday overturned an appeals court and held that the city’s insurance company should have to pay no more than $700,000 to the victims’ family.
The plaintiffs had sought $5 million, the limits of a city insurance policy written by Atlantic Specialty Insurance Co. But the high court said that state law granted the city sovereign immunity for most of the damages and the insurance policy did not negate that.
“Because the Court of Appeals incorrectly ruled that the City’s insurance policy increased the sovereign immunity waiver notwithstanding the immunity endorsements, which expressly preclude coverage when a sovereign immunity defense applies, we reverse,” Chief Justice David Nahmias wrote in the opinion.
Georgia law waives sovereign immunity up to $700,000. But the family’s attorneys argued that state law also states that when local governments purchase liability insurance, the waiver is increased to the extent of the policy limits.
Atlantic Specialty, based in Minnesota, intervened in the suit and argued that the immunity endorsement in the policy limited the insurance payout.
“We have no duty to pay ‘damages’ on your behalf under this policy unless the defenses of sovereign and governmental immunity are inapplicable to you,” the endorsement reads, as quoted by the court.
Another section reads: The policy “does not constitute, nor reflect an intent by [the City], to waive or forego any defenses of sovereign and governmental immunity available to any insured, whether based upon statute(s), common law or otherwise, including Georgia Code Section 36-33-1, or any amendments.”
The plaintiffs contended that the immunity endorsements should be voided because they are contrary to public policy.
The trial court and the appeals court agreed with the family. The Georgia legislature’s intent was to protect the public “by waiving the sovereign immunity of local government entities with respect to claims for the negligent use of a motor vehicle and establishing the limits of the amount of the waiver in the event the government entity purchases liability insurance,” the Court of Appeals noted in 2020.
In other words, granting full immunity to local police who engage in reckless chases would leave victims with little compensation, and Altantic Specialty’s argument ran counter to the General Assembly’s clear legislative intent, the appeals court said.
But the Supreme Court decided that, under the law, immunity above $700,000 is waived only when the city purchases insurance in excess of $700,000 for the type of claim at issue.
“The Court of Appeals misinterpreted OCGA § 36-92-2 (d) (3) to mean that the purchase of liability insurance in excess of the statutorily prescribed limit in subsection (a) waives sovereign immunity to the limit of the insurance purchased for any sort of claim,” the high court wrote. “But an insurance policy does not normally provide blanket coverage for any and all claims.”
The court concluded that because of the immunity endorsements in the city’s policy, “the City did not purchase insurance coverage for the Plaintiffs’ asserted claims above the applicable automatic sovereign immunity waiver of $700,000.”
All justices concurred in the opinion.
The man who stole the car in 2016 and allegedly caused the crash was only recently charged. Diontre Tigner was 16 at the time of the collision. News reports said that he walked away from the scene and somehow eluded arrest for six years, despite being on probation for another crime.
Tigner was arrested Dec. 23 and was arraigned in court on Jan. 26, according to local news reports.
Killed in the crash were 75-year-old Dorothy Wright, her 12-year-old grandson Cameron Costner, and her 6-year-old granddaughter Layla Partridge. The family held a memorial service last month on the sixth anniversary of the fatal incident.
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