Child death in day care van – uninsured child care & sovereign immunity for negligent licensing
Every summer there are far too many instances of children dying when left in a hot vehicle. One such tragedy involving a child care center without adequate insurance led to a claim against a city government for negligent licensing of the child care center.
Many child care centers in Georgia have no liability insurance because child care centers in Georgia are not required to carry any specific amount of liability insurance. The regulations governing Family Child Care Learning Homes require only “notification of the absence of a liability insurance policy sufficient to protect its clients,” though the amount of insurance that would be sufficient is never defined. The Rules for Child Care Learning Centers require only that a program seeking an exemption from licensure “shall comply with the requirements regarding notification to parents of enrolled children if the program does not carry liability insurance.” Parents are asked to sign an acknowledgment that the center “does not carry liability insurance sufficient to protect my children in the event of an injury, etc.”
When I was chairman of the board of directors of a non-profit, church-based child development center, we carried substantial liability insurance, adopted strict policies and procedures, and installed state of the art security technology. We were a rare exception.
If a child is badly injured or killed in many Georgia child care centers, the absence of liability insurance is likely to leave the family without any effective legal recourse.
In the recent case of Calloway v. City of Warner Robins, 336 Ga.App. 714, 783 S.E.2d 175 (2016), a three-year-old child died of heat stroke when left in a hot vehicle for several hours while in the care of workers a child care center. Lacking effective recourse against the child care center and its employees, the parents included as defendants the City of Warner Robins and the city clerk for negligence in issuance of a business license without following certain procedures.
The Court of Appeals (McFadden, J.), held that the city was protected by sovereign immunity because a “municipality’s act of granting or revoking a business license constitutes a governmental function,” even if the issuance of the license was negligent. Likewise, the city clerk who was sued only in his official capacity was protected by sovereign immunity.
From time immemorial the doctrine of sovereign immunity has restricted citizens’ rights to seek legal redress against the government for its wrongdoing. Georgia has subscribed to the doctrine of sovereign immunity since 1784, when it was adopted by statute from the common law of England. The concept of sovereign immunity is a carryover from the quaint legal fiction that “the King can do no wrong,” which survived the transition from individual absolute sovereign to representative democracy. Limiting the governmental treasury’s exposure to tort liability is the more contemporary justification for the rule.
Whatever the rationale, through most of Georgia’s history, the state enjoyed almost complete immunity for the wrongs of its agents. Sovereign immunity is recognized to be “a harsh doctrine, not an equitable one.” Indeed, it is just the opposite of equity–it is the state declaring that it cannot be sued even where it would otherwise be liable.
The extent to which governmental entities receive the protections of sovereign immunity varies, depending on the type of entity involved and the type of negligence claimed. Generally speaking, the state is subject to a broader waiver of sovereign immunity than counties and municipalities, with the prevailing law being that the state waives immunity unless liability is specifically excluded by the Georgia Tort Claims Act.
The inverse is true of counties and municipalities, which require a specific statutory waiver before they can be liable. In addition to the government’s own immunity, government officials enjoy personal immunity for their allegedly wrongful acts, referred to as official, or qualified, immunity, which is not absolute, but protects them from the burdens of liability and litigation in many circumstances.
Ken Shigley is a past president of the State Bar of Georgia, past chair of the American Association for Justice Motor Vehicle Collision, Highway and Premises Liability Section, and a board certified civil trial attorney of the National Board of Trial Advocacy. His statewide law practice is based in Atlanta.