Ga. SC reverses judgment in favor of county in wrongful death suit

Jessica M. Karmasek Jul. 11, 2012, 12:30pm


ATLANTA (Legal Newsline) - The Georgia Supreme Court ruled last week that a tractor at the center of a wrongful death lawsuit meets the definition of "any motor vehicle" in state law.

The Court, in its July 2 opinion, granted review to the state Court of Appeals, which posed the following question to the state's high court:

"Whether the definition of 'any motor vehicle' in OCGA § 33-24-51 (a) continues to be the broader definition of the term provided for in prior case law, notwithstanding the 2002 passage of OCGA § 36-92-1."

In its seven-page ruling, the Court answered in the affirmative, siding with the appeals court.

In this case, a trial court had granted summary judgment in favor of Troup County, concluding it did not waive sovereign immunity because neither the tractor nor bush hog at issue could be deemed a "motor vehicle" under OCGA 36-92-1.

The appeals court reversed, holding that the previously used, broader definition of "motor vehicle" should be applied under OCGA 33-24-51 and, therefore, the county waived sovereign immunity as long as it purchased insurance policies providing coverage for the tractor and bush hog used by Troy Smith.

Smith and Jonathan Glass, both inmates at the Troup County Correctional Institution, had been assigned to road detail.

They were operating tractors with attached bush hogs, or rotary mowers, when Smith's tractor got stuck in a ditch.

Donrell Gates, Glass' detail supervisor, instructed the men to attach a chain to the tractors so Glass could use his tractor to pull Smith's tractor from the ditch. As Glass did so, Smith engaged his tractor's bush hog, causing a rock to take flight and pierce Glass' throat.

Glass bled profusely and died later that day.

Glass' minor son and the executor of his estate brought a wrongful death and survivor lawsuit against the county and Gates.

The county sought summary judgment, claiming the plaintiffs' claims were barred by sovereign immunity.

The plaintiffs argued the county waived sovereign immunity under OCGA 33-24-51 (a) and (b) by purchasing two liability insurance policies, a general liability policy and an automobile liability policy, both of which were in place at the time of Glass' death and provided coverage of up to $1 million.

The county asserted that by revising OCGA 33-24-51 (b) in 2002, effective Jan. 1, 2005, the state Legislature demonstrated its intent to apply the more narrow definition of "motor vehicle" found in OCGA 36-92-1 (6) in determining whether a local government waived sovereign immunity by purchasing liability insurance on a motor vehicle.

"It follows that, where, as here, a local entity purchases automobile liability insurance in an amount greater than the prescribed limits set forth for a waiver of sovereign immunity under OCGA § 36-92-1 et seq., the entity waives sovereign immunity to the extent of its insurance coverage as required by OCGA § 33-24-51 (b) -- and the broad definition of 'any motor vehicle' set forth in OCGA § 33-24-51 applies," Justice Hugh P. Thompson wrote for a unanimous Court.

"If the legislature intended to do otherwise, i.e., to apply a narrow definition of 'motor vehicle' to situations in which local governments purchased automobile liability insurance coverage for amounts over and above the prescribed sovereign immunity limits, it would have done so explicitly."

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