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Cooley v. Bryant

Court of Appeals of Georgia

March 30, 2015

COOLEY
v.
BRYANT

Cert. applied for.

Sovereign immunity. Muscogee Superior Court. Before Judge Rumer.

Page, Scrantom, Sprouse, Tucker & Ford, James C. Clark, Jr., for appellant.

Bennett & Casto, Mark A. Casto, for appellee.

OPINION

Page 412

Ray, Judge.

Jonathan Bryant, an inmate at the Muscogee County Prison, was actively participating on a work crew assigned to the Columbus Parks and Recreation Department when he was injured by a lawn mower. Bryant filed suit against Michael Cooley, the correctional officer supervising the crew, in his individual and official capacities, for the injuries Bryant sustained. Cooley filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that Bryant's claims against him were barred by the doctrines of sovereign immunity and official immunity. Finding that Bryant's claims against Cooley in his official capacity were barred by the doctrine of sovereign immunity, the trial court granted his summary judgment in part. However, the trial court denied Cooley's summary judgment motion as to Bryant's claims against him personally. The trial court found that Cooley's acts of maintaining and inspecting the lawn mower were ministerial, not discretionary, and that Bryant's claims against him were not barred by the doctrine of official immunity. The trial court certified its order for immediate review, and this Court granted Cooley's petition for interlocutory review. We affirm the trial court's denial of Cooley's summary judgment

Page 413

motion, but remand the case to the trial court for a jury to determine whether, under the facts of this case, Cooley knew that the lawn mower was defective and presented a dangerous condition, such that his ministerial duty to have the mower repaired would trigger, and if so, all issues related to liability and damages.

Summary judgment is proper when there is no genuine issue of material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. On appeal from the denial or grant of summary judgment, the appellate court is to conduct a de novo review of the evidence to determine whether there exists a genuine issue of material fact, and whether the undisputed facts, viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, warrant judgment as a matter of law.

[331 Ga.App. 719] (Punctuation and footnotes omitted.) Taylor v. Campbell, 320 Ga.App. 362, 362 (739 S.E.2d 801) (2013).

The record shows that on May 3, 2006, Bryant, an inmate at the Muscogee County Prison, was assigned to an inmate work detail where he was directed to cut grass at Dinglewood Park in Columbus, Georgia. The detail supervisor was Correctional Officer Cooley. Cooley was responsible for supervising the inmates during the work detail and for ensuring that the equipment they were using was operational. Cooley deposed that he inspected the lawn mowers to ensure that they had oil and gas and that the blades were sharp. If anything needed repair, he would deliver it to the maintenance shop. Cooley would again inspect the equipment in the evening after it had been used to make sure that it was " clean, serviceable, [and] ready for the next day's work." There was no written policy or procedure governing Cooley's inspections or requiring him to inspect the equipment for safety.

On the day of his injury, Bryant was assigned to the task of mowing with a three-wheel push mower. To start the mower, Bryant had to connect the spark plug and pull the crank. The mower's safety lever had been disconnected at the time he began work that morning. This lever would normally have to be held to start and keep the mower running. Bryant stated that Cooley instructed him to make sure that the spark plug was plugged in when he turned the mower on and that he should hold a zip tie attached to the spark plug to pull the spark plug out if he wanted to turn the mower off. Further, the safety flap on the side of the mower where the grass shoots out was missing. Bryant also explained that he informed Cooley that the mower assigned to him was meant for flat surfaces, but that Cooley instructed him to mow a hilly area.

Cooley deposed that he had not experienced any previous maintenance issues with that mower, and that he had inspected the mower on the day of Bryant's injury and confirmed that it had not been altered or changed in any way. However, it was common for inmates hoping to avoid working to " mess" with the equipment. Bryant deposed that it was " common knowledge" that the equipment given to the inmates to perform their work duties was " half crap" and that guards did not seriously consider complaints from other inmates regarding equipment safety.

On the date at issue, the inmate crew was finishing up their work at the park when Bryant's accident occurred. Bryant pushed the mower down a hill to cut grass as close to the adjacent ditch as possible when his mower gained so much momentum that he was almost running to stop the mower from escaping his grasp. The three-wheeled mower hit a hole, dug into the ground, and flipped up [331 Ga.App. 720] sideways. Bryant pushed the mower off to the side and tried to jump clear, but his leg hit the portion of the mower where the grass shoots out and was seriously injured. The mower continued to operate during the event because the mower's safety lever, which would normally automatically shut off the mower in such a situation, was inoperable at the time. Another inmate ran up and pulled the spark plug out to stop the mower.

Bryant filed suit against Cooley individually and in his official capacity for negligent inspection and negligent maintenance of the lawn mower. Cooley filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing, inter alia, that the claims against him in his individual capacity were barred by the doctrine of official

Page 414

immunity. The trial court denied Cooley's summary judgment motion as to the claims against him personally, finding that Cooley's inspection and maintenance of the lawn mowers was ministerial and that Bryant's claims against Cooley were not barred under the theory of official immunity. The trial court issued a certificate of immediate review, and this Court granted Cooley's application for interlocutory review after finding that it fell under the collateral order doctrine.[1]

1. Cooley contends that the trial court erred in denying his motion for summary judgment as to the issue of official immunity based upon a finding that his inspection and maintenance of the lawn mowing equipment was ministerial, and not discretionary.

The doctrine of official immunity, also known as qualified immunity, offers public officers and employees limited protection from suit in their personal capacity. Qualified immunity protects individual public agents from personal liability for discretionary actions taken within the scope of their official authority, and done without wilfulness, malice, or corruption. Under Georgia law, a public officer or employee may be personally liable only for ministerial acts negligently performed or acts performed with malice or an intent to injure. The rationale for this immunity is to preserve the [331 Ga.App. 721] public employee's independence of action without fear of lawsuits and to prevent a review of his or her judgment in hindsight.

(Citations omitted.) Williams v. Pauley, 331 Ga.App. 129, 130 (768 S.E.2d 546) (2015). Official immunity is an " 'entitlement not to stand trial' rather than a 'mere defense to liability.' " (Footnote omitted.) Cameron v. Lang, 274 Ga. 122, 124 (549 S.E.2d 341) (2001). Accordingly, as a correctional officer in the Parks and Recreation Division of the Columbus Consolidated Government, Cooley is

entitled to official immunity for the negligent performance of discretionary acts within the scope of his authority as an officer; he may be personally liable if he negligently performed a ministerial act or acted with actual malice or an intent to injure when performing a discretionary act.

(Citations omitted; emphasis supplied.) Williams, supra. Because Bryant does not claim that Cooley acted with actual malice or an intent to injure, the issue is whether the alleged ...


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