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Williams v. Wilcox State Prison

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Fourth Division

April 21, 2017

WILLIAMS
v.
WILCOX STATE PRISON, et al.

          DILLARD, P. J., RAY and SELF, JJ.

          Dillard, Presiding Judge.

         Betty Williams appeals the trial court's dismissal of her negligence action against Wilcox State Prison and the Georgia Department of Corrections (collectively the "GDOC"), [1] arguing that the court erred in finding that her ante-litem notice failed to comply with the Georgia Tort Claims Act's ("GTCA")[2] requirements that it apprise the GDOC of the alleged acts or omissions that caused her loss and of the nature of the loss she allegedly suffered. Although Williams concedes that she failed to comply with the GTCA's requirement that she attach a certificate to her complaint, certifying that she mailed a copy of the complaint to the Attorney General in a specified manner, she nevertheless maintains that she should have been allowed to amend her complaint to include the certificate. For the reasons set forth infra, we affirm.

         The record shows that on May 11, 2015, Williams filed a complaint for damages against the GDOC, alleging that, while visiting Wilcox State Prison, she "tripped and fell over uneven floor [in] the visitor's bathroom, " which resulted in severe bodily injury. The complaint further alleged that the GDOC "did not act reasonably in inspecting or maintaining the ground so as to prevent or correct the dangerous and hazardous condition of the ground" and that Williams's injuries were proximately caused by its negligence. The GDOC answered, denying the allegations and asserting numerous defenses, including that, in violation of OCGA § 50-21-26 (a) (4), Williams failed to attach as exhibits to her complaint a pre-suit notice of the claim she presented to the Risk Management Division of the Department of Administrative Services and a receipt evincing delivery of the notice. In addition, the GDOC asserted that Williams failed to attach to her complaint a certificate that OCGA § 50-21-35's requirement of notice to the Attorney General had been satisfied.

         On June 26, 2015, the GDOC filed a motion to dismiss Williams's complaint, arguing that the trial court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction over the case because it had not waived its sovereign immunity to her tort claims, and that she failed to demonstrate strict compliance with the GTCA's ante-litem and notice-of-service provisions.[3] Shortly thereafter, Williams amended her complaint to include as exhibits two ante-litem notices dated September 11, 2013, that were sent to Wilcox State Prison and the GDOC, as well as the certified mail receipt for each notice. The GDOC then supplemented its motion to dismiss Williams's complaint, arguing that, although Williams had attached purported ante-litem notices to her amended complaint, those notices were deficient and failed to strictly comply with OCGA § 50-21-26. In doing so, the GDOC reiterated that Williams had still not provided a certificate showing that notice of her suit had been provided to the Attorney General as required by OCGA § 50-21-35. Following Williams's response to the GDOC's motion to dismiss her complaint and other responsive pleadings by the parties, the trial court ultimately granted the GDOC's motion and dismissed the complaint. This appeal by Williams follows.

         We begin by noting that this Court reviews de novo a "trial court's ruling on a motion to dismiss based on sovereign immunity grounds, which is a matter of law."[4]Further, the trial court's factual findings will be sustained if "there is evidence supporting them, and the burden of proof is on the party seeking the waiver of immunity."[5] With these guiding principles in mind, we will now address Williams's specific claims of error.

         1. Williams argues that the trial court erred in dismissing her complaint based on its findings that her ante-litem notices failed to provide the GDOC with sufficient notice of the acts or omissions that caused her alleged loss or of the nature of that loss. We disagree.

         As we have explained, the GTCA is "a limited waiver of the State's sovereign immunity, crafted, as is constitutionally authorized, by our Legislature, and not subject to modification or abrogation by our courts, "[6] and requires "a party with a potential tort claim against the State to provide the State with notice of the claim prior to filing suit thereon."[7] Indeed, the ante-litem notice requirements "serve the purpose of ensuring that the [S]tate receives adequate notice of the claim to facilitate settlement before the filing of a lawsuit."[8] Importantly, a claimant must "strictly comply with the notice provisions as a prerequisite to filing suit under the GTCA, and substantial compliance is not sufficient."[9] As we have previously explained, "substantial compliance is not strict compliance. Strict compliance is exactly what it sounds like: strict."[10] That said, we have repeatedly emphasized that the rule of strict compliance "does not demand a hyper-technical construction that would not measurably advance the purpose of the GTCA's notice provisions [as reflected by the plain meaning of the relevant statutory text]."[11] Nevertheless, if the ante-litem notice requirements are not met, then the State does not waive sovereign immunity and the trial court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction over the case.[12]

         OCGA § 50-21-26 provides, inter alia, that no person who has a tort claim against the State may bring an action against the State on that claim without first giving notice, which

shall be given in writing and shall be mailed by certified mail or statutory overnight delivery, return receipt requested, or delivered personally to and a receipt obtained from the Risk Management Division of the Department of Administrative Services. In addition, a copy shall be delivered personally to or mailed by first-class mail to the state government entity, the act or omissions of which are asserted as the basis of the claim.[13]
As to the content of that notice, OCGA § 50-21-26 (a) (5) provides that
[a] notice of claim under this Code section shall state, 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.[14]

         In granting the GDOC's motion to dismiss the complaint, the trial court found that Williams's ante-litem notice failed to strictly comply with OCGA § 50-21-26 (a) (5)'s requirements that it identify the acts or omissions which caused her alleged loss and the nature of that loss. The trial court's findings are supported by the record.

         The identical ante-litem notices attached to Williams's amended complaint contend that, on or about June 30, 2013, Williams was injured while visiting an inmate at Wilcox State Prison. Specifically, the notices state that, "[w]hile in the bathroom, [ ] Williams encountered a hazard, water on the floor[, ]" and that "[w]ithout warning, or notice, [she] slipped, fell, and was injured." The notices further assert that Williams's negligence claims are based on the GDOC's failure to properly warn her of the water hazard and its failure to maintain a safe environment. But Williams's complaint was based on an entirely different set of factual allegations. Indeed, as previously mentioned, Williams's complaint alleged that she was injured at the prison when she tripped and fell over uneven flooring in the visitor's bathroom, not that she slipped as a result of a water hazard. And unlike her ante-litem notices' suggestion that her injuries were caused by the GDOC's failure to keep the bathroom floor dry or to warn her of a water hazard, the complaint alleged that her injuries were caused by the GDOC's failure to (1) warn of uneven ground; (2) place proper warning signs around the uneven area; (3) inspect the ground so as to discover the hazard; and (4) otherwise maintain the ground in a safe condition. ...


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