The leadership of the Georgia State Patrol deserves credit for openness in promptly taking disciplinary action and publicly disclosing that a State Trooper’s reckless conduct caused the deaths of two west Georgia teenagers and injuries to two others last week.
State Trooper Anthony J. Scott, 26, was fired Friday after investigators determined he was driving 91 mph five seconds before a crash that killed Kylie Hope Lindsey, 17, and Isabella Alise Chinchilla, 16, both of whom were back seat passengers and students at South Paulding High School. Front seat occupants Dillon Lewis Wall, 18, and Benjamin Alan Finken, 17, both of Douglasville, were also injured.
Trooper Scott was northbound on U.S. 27 in Carroll County last Saturday night. He had slowed from 91 to 68 mph when he struck a 2005 Nissan Sentra attempting a left turn onto Holly Springs Road, investigators said. The posted speed limit in the area is 55 mph.
In the old days, it would have been much easier for government officials to cover up what really happened and place the blame on a teen driver. Now, with so much electronic data preserved in the patrol car, it would have been much harder to maintain a coverup.
Nothing can be worse for parents that the untimely death of a beloved child. For an innocent daughter to die due to senseless recklessness of a law enforcement officer who is sworn to protect rather than endanger the public is doubly tragic.
Criminal charges for homicide by vehicle are likely. As the crash happened in Carroll County in the Coweta Circuit, the Georgia State Patrol announced that it will turn over its findings to Coweta Judicial Circuit District Attorney Pete Skandalakis.
Civil cases for wrongful death and personal injury against state employees are controlled by the Georgia Torts Claims Act (GTCA), which became law in 1992. Under this law, the State of Georgia waives its sovereign immunity “for the torts of state officers and employees while acting within the scope of their official duties or employment and shall be liable for such torts in the same manner as a private individual or entity would be liable under like circumstances.”
There is a long list of exceptions to potential state liability under this statute, but none of them would appear to apply to speeding through an intersection when there is no law enforcement emergency and without lights or siren operating.
Sovereign immunity is waived only up to the amount of $1 million per person and $3 million per occurrence. A wrongful death claim (for full value of the life of the person who was killed) and a survival action (for pain and suffering, medical expenses and funeral expenses), however, whether brought by the same or separate persons, are subject to separate $1 million caps.
To make a claim under the Georgia Tort Claims Act, one must present a claim before suit in a technically precise manner. It is common for cases against the state to be thrown out of court for failure to strictly comply with the technicalities of the notice requirement. Compliance with the ante litem notice requirements is a condition precedent to a plaintiff’s right to file suit against the state, and the courts lack jurisdiction to adjudicate any such claims against the state unless and until the written notice of claim has been timely presented to the state as provided in O.C.G.A. §50-21-26(a).
Within 12 months of the incident causing injury or death, a written notice of claim must be sent by certified mail or statutory overnight delivery such as Fedex or UPS to the Risk Management Division of the Department of Administrative Services, the designated officer of the governmental agency involved, and the Attorney General. The notice of claim must include,
“to the extent of the claimant’s knowledge and belief and as may be practicable under the circumstances, the following: (A) The name of the state government entity, the acts or omissions of which are asserted as the basis of the claim; (B) The time of the transaction or occurrence out of which the loss arose; (C) The place of the transaction or occurrence; (D) The nature of the loss suffered; (E) The amount of the loss claimed; and (F) The acts or omissions which caused the loss.”
Failure to state an amount being claimed defeats the claim, so one must state a dollar amount up to the maximum allowed under the GTCA.
This is all familiar territory to me. Last year, the Supreme Court of Georgia quoted my book, Georgia Law of Torts: Trial Preparation and Practice, in a case discussing the scope of the GTCA. My first job out of law school was as an Assistant District Attorney in my hometown of Douglasville, working in Douglas, Paulding, Haralson and Polk Counties, then all part of the old Tallapoosa Judicial Circuit. That of course involved working with State Troopers, though we also prosecuted a State Trooper in Paulding County for sexual exploitation of several young girls. Later, for most of a decade, I was in an Atlanta law firm that defended suits against state officials and employees including State Troopers all over Georgia.
Ken Shigley is an Atlanta trial attorney focused on serious personal injury and wrongful death cases. He is currently chair of the American Association for Justice Motor Vehicle Collision, Highway & Premises Liability Section. Previously he served as president of the State Bar of Georgia and chair of the board of trustees of theInstitute for Continuing Legal Education in Georgia. He is lead author of Georgia Law of Torts: Trial Preparation and Practice and a board certified civil trial attorney of the National Board of Trial Advocacy.