Georgia county not immune from negligence suit when it purchases liability insurance

The Court of Appeals of Georgia recently had to determine whether Coweta County was immune from a lawsuit in which an inmate died from an exploding tractor tire. The court ruled that the county is not immune from suit, since the county had purchased the type of insurance which waived sovereign immunity under the applicable statute.

In McDuffie v. Coweta County, the estate of prisoner Terry Rhoades sued the county for wrongful death. Rhoades had been assigned to work as an auto mechanic in the Coweta County Correctional Institute. On August 11, 2003, a tractor tire came into the shop which needed a new tube. Rhoades replaced the tube and then placed the tire back onto the tractor. During this time, Rhoades was being supervised by a prison guard; however, the guard left to use the restroom after Rhoades put the tire back onto the tractor. While the guard was away, Rhoades was getting a hose to put air into the tire. The guard then heard a loud explosion and returned to find Rhoades dead on the ground. Rhoades’ estate sued for negligent supervision by the guard.

Generally, counties are immune from suit unless the state legislature waives immunity. The version of the applicable statute in this case waives immunity if the county purchases the type of insurance defined by the statute and if the claim falls within that type of coverage. The statute states that the county must have purchased “insurance to cover liability for damages on account of bodily injury or death resulting from bodily injury to any person or for damage to property of any person, or for both arising by reason of ownership, maintenance, operation, or use of any motor vehicle.” Furthermore, the policy must provide “liability coverage for the negligence of any duly authorized . . . employee in the performance of his or her official duty.”

The appellate court found that the county did have such an insurance policy. The county’s policy covered “bodily injury. . . that results from ownership, maintenance, use, loading or unloading of a covered auto.” The policy only excluded injuries which were “intentional or expected.” The court found that negligence was included within the term “accident”, and that the term “auto” falls within the statute’s requirement of “motor vehicle.” The court then determined that a tractor does fall under “motor vehicle” for purposes of the statute. As a result, the appellate court reversed the trial court’s granting of summary judgment for the county.

Pate & Brody is an accomplished Georgia law firm with offices in Atlanta, Macon and Madison. Our lawyers are dedicated to pursuing justice for crime victims, people who have been defrauded by deceptive business practices, or injured through the fault of others. Our lawyers have been recognized on the list of Georgia’s “Super Lawyers”, and included among Georgia’s “Legal Elite” by Georgia Trend Magazine.