Supreme Court Clarifies Sovereign Immunity Analysis

February 24, 2015

Just days ago, the Supreme Court of Georgia decided that the care of inmates in custody of a municipal corporation is a governmental function that does not implicate a waiver of sovereign immunity. See City of Atlanta v. Mitcham, No. S14G0619, 2015 WL 659597 (Ga. Feb. 16, 2015).

A diabetic inmate claimed the City was negligent in failing to monitor and regulate his insulin levels. The trial court and Court of Appeals rejected the City’s sovereign immunity claim because “medical attention and/or care for an inmate is a ministerial act which does not involve the exercise of discretion.” The Supreme Court reversed and, in doing so, seized the opportunity to clarify some misconceptions about sovereign immunity. The Court acknowledged that governmental entities often wear two hats. They perform governmental functions that they have a constitutional or statutory duty to perform, such as providing police and fire protection. But they might also choose to perform non-governmental or proprietary functions that are not required of them, such as providing public transportation. O.C.G.A. § 36-33-1(a) grants municipal corporations sovereign immunity for all governmental duties but it allows them to be liable for non-governmental functions that are negligently performed. The Supreme Court explained that the Court of Appeals went astray when it imported official immunity concepts into the sovereign immunity analysis by focusing on the nature of the act (discretionary or ministerial), instead of the nature of the function (governmental or ministerial). The term “ministerial,” therefore, has two distinct meanings depending upon the context. It means non-governmental for purposes of sovereign immunity, but it means non-discretionary for purposes of official immunity. The focus for sovereign immunity purposes is on the nature of the function – governmental or non-governmental – while the focus for official immunity purposes is on the act itself – discretionary or ministerial.

Concluding its decision, the Supreme Court noted that the appellate court erred by applying Cantrell v. Thurman 231 Ga.App. 510, 499 S.E.2d 416 (1998) – which dealt with a county’s waiver of sovereign immunity under Article I, Section II, Paragraph IX(d) of the Georgia Constitution – as this provision is inapplicable to municipal corporations and does not implicate the governmental function analysis.

Practitioners should be aware of the often subtle distinctions between sovereign immunity and official immunity and should draft their pleadings and tailor their discovery accordingly.

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