Court of Appeals Distinguishes Between “Tiers” of Immunity for School Districts

May 6, 2015

The Court of Appeals recently clarified that a Georgia Statute waiving sovereign immunity for certain local government entities – O.C.G.A. § 33-24-51(b) – creates a two-tiered analysis under which the first tier explicitly excludes School Districts from a waiver, while the second tier waives immunity for School Districts. See Tift Cnty. Sch. Dist. v. Martinez, No. A14A1988, 2015 WL 1260071 (Ga. Ct. App. Mar. 20, 2015).

The mother of a student sued a School District and its bus driver for damages after her son was struck and killed by a driver while attempting to board the school bus. The parties entered into a stipulation, adopted as part of the pre-trial order, which stated that (1) the School District waived sovereign immunity to the extent of the amount of insurance purchased as part of its commercial automobile liability policy, and (2) although the bus driver was officially immune in her individual capacity for performing a discretionary function, when sued in her official capacity that immunity was waived to the extent of the School District’s liability insurance. The School District and its driver moved for summary judgment based upon sovereign immunity and official immunity, arguing that the stipulation was ineffective since sovereign immunity can only be waived by an Act of the General Assembly, and that no such statutory waiver applied to the School District or its driver. The trial court denied Defendants’ motion on the grounds that O.C.G.A. § 33-24-51 explicitly waived the District’s immunity, which Defendants appealed.

Affirming the trial court’s determination, the Court of Appeals explained that O.C.G.A. § 33-24-51(b) creates two tiers within which local governments waive their sovereign immunity, one of which includes School Districts. With respect to the first tier, the Court held that “[t]he sovereign immunity of local government entities for a loss arising out of claims for the negligent use of a covered motor vehicle is waived as provided in Code Section 36-92-2” – applies only to “local government entities,” as defined by O.C.G.A. § 36-92-1, and thus excludes School Districts from the waiver. However, the Court found that the broad language of the second tier – waiving immunity to the extent of insurance purchased for “a municipal corporation, a county, or any other political subdivision” – shows the General Assembly’s intent to include School Districts in this waiver. Unlike the first tier, which waives immunity to the extent of statutorily prescribed limits regardless of whether insurance has been purchased, the second-tier only waives immunity to the extent of insurance actually procured and in effect.

The Court concluded its discussion noting that the parties could not waive the State’s sovereign immunity or the driver’s official immunity to the extent sued in her official capacity (since a suit against a public employee is in essence a suit against the State itself, and thus implicates sovereign immunity), as only the General Assembly may waive the State’s sovereign immunity.

This case marks a trend of recent decisions clarifying the sovereign immunity analysis applicable in Georgia and practitioners should take note of these recent holdings.

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