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Tattnall County v. Armstrong

Court of Appeals of Georgia

July 13, 2015

TATTNALL COUNTY et al.
v.
ARMSTRONG

Sovereign immunity. Tattnall Superior Court. Before Judge Stewart.

Brown, Readdick, Bumgartner, Carter, Strickland & Watkins, Richard K. Strickland, Paul M. Scott, Emily R. Hancock; Dubberly & McGovern, Joseph D. McGovern, for appellants.

John G. Phillips, C. Ron Smith, for appellee.

MCMILLIAN, Judge. Doyle, C. J., Andrews, P. J., Ellington, P. J., Dillard, Boggs, Ray and Branch, JJ., concur. Barnes, P. J., Phipps, P. J., Miller and McFadden, JJ., concur fully and specially.

OPINION

Page 574

McMillian, Judge.

This appeal arises from an inmate's allegations that he was not provided access to proper medical care while he was incarcerated at the county jail. Appellee Jacob Armstrong initially filed a complaint asserting state and federal law claims against Quinton Rush, individually and in his official capacity as Tattnall County Sheriff; Jason Howell, individually and in his official capacity as Tattnall County [333 Ga.App. 47] Chief Jailer; John Williams, individually and in his official capacity as a Tattnall County Sheriff's Deputy; and the Tattnall County Sheriff's Office (" Sheriff's Office" ). Armstrong's claims were removed to federal court, but after he dismissed the federal claims, the district court remanded the case back to the Superior Court of Tattnall County. Armstrong then filed an amended complaint, which the Sheriff's Office and individual defendants answered, and shortly thereafter filed a motion to add Tattnall County (the " County" ) as a party to the proceedings. The trial court granted Armstrong's motion over Tattnall County's objection, and he amended his complaint for a second and third time, asserting violations of two Georgia statutes (OCGA § § 42-4-4 and 42-5-2), and the Georgia Constitution. Tattnall County and the remaining defendants filed motions to dismiss, arguing that Armstrong's claims against the County and the individual defendants in their official capacities were barred by sovereign immunity and, additionally, that the Sheriff's Office was not a legal entity capable of being sued.[1] Armstrong

Page 575

conceded that the Sheriff's Office should be dismissed as a party, but otherwise opposed the motions to dismiss. The trial court dismissed the Sheriff's Office but, citing Cantrell v. Thurman, 231 Ga.App. 510 (499 S.E.2d 416) (1998), refused to dismiss the remaining defendants on sovereign immunity grounds. Pursuant to the collateral order doctrine, see, e.g., Effingham County v. Roach, 329 Ga.App. 805, 805, n. 1 (764 S.E.2d 600) (2014); Bd. of Regents v. Canas, 295 Ga.App. 505, 507 (1) (672 S.E.2d 471) (2009), the defendants[2] directly appealed to the Court from the trial court's order. As more fully set forth below, we now overrule Cantrell, and reverse the trial court's denial of defendants' motions to dismiss.

We start with the factual basis for Armstrong's complaint, accepting his well-pleaded material allegations as true.[3] In January 2012, Armstrong was incarcerated in the Tattnall County jail. At that time he was being treated for vision problems, and on January 19, 2012, [333 Ga.App. 48] his treating physician ordered MRIs of Armstrong's brain and cervical and lumbar spine. The defendants failed to ensure that Armstrong obtained his MRIs on January 19 or at any time thereafter.

Approximately a month later, Armstrong passed out at the jail and was transported to the hospital. The doctors at the hospital determined that Armstrong had suffered a stroke and attributed the cause to abscesses on and/or in his brain. Armstrong alleges that if defendants had allowed him to obtain the MRIs that were ordered by his treating physician, these abscesses would have been detected earlier. Accordingly, Armstrong seeks damages for the severe injuries he suffered due to defendants' negligent and intentional failure to provide him access to proper medical care.

1. Against this backdrop, we now turn to the question of whether Armstrong's claim is barred by sovereign immunity. " [O]ur review of this question of law is de novo." Ga. Dept. of Natural Resources v. Center for a Sustainable Coast, Inc., 294 Ga. 593, 596 (2) (755 S.E.2d 184) (2014).

Pursuant to a 1991 amendment to the Georgia Constitution,

... sovereign immunity extends to the state and all of its departments and agencies. The sovereign immunity of the state and its departments and agencies can only be waived by an Act of the General Assembly which specifically provides that ...

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