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Georgia Ports Authority v. Lawyer

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Fifth Division

June 28, 2017

GEORGIA PORTS AUTHORITY
v.
LAWYER.

          MCFADDEN, P. J., BRANCH and BETHEL, JJ.

          Branch, Judge.

         This case arises out of injuries sustained by Bruce Lawyer while working aboard a ship docked at the Garden City Terminal in the Port of Savannah. A Chatham County jury found that these injuries were caused by the negligence of a Georgia Ports Authority ("GPA") employee, and awarded Lawyer $4.5 million in damages. After the jury returned its verdict, the trial court issued an order denying the GPA's pretrial motion to dismiss Lawyer's federal maritime claim for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and entered judgment in favor of Lawyer. The GPA now appeals each of these orders. The GPA argues that the trial court erred in finding that the GPA is not an instrumentality of the State and therefore is not entitled to immunity from suit under the Eleventh Amendment to the United States Constitution. Additionally, the GPA contends that the trial court erred in denying its motion for a directed verdict on Lawyer's maritime claim because Lawyer failed to come forward with any evidence that his injury occurred on navigable waters. For reasons explained more fully below, we find no error and affirm.

         The facts giving rise to this lawsuit are not in dispute and the parties agree that Lawyer was injured while working aboard the M/V Ibrahim Dede, a ship that was docked at a facility located on the Savannah River. Lawyer's job on that day was to secure containers of cargo that were being transferred onto the ship via a ship-to-shore river crane operated by a GPA employee. During that process, the negligence of the crane operator caused one of the "twist locks" attached to the container being loaded to dislodge and fall into the ship's cargo hold, where Lawyer was working. The twist lock - which is a metal piece weighing approximately 16 pounds - struck Lawyer in the head, inflicting permanent, life-changing injuries. Lawyer thereafter sued the GPA in superior court, asserting claims under both federal maritime law and the Georgia Tort Claims Act ("GTCA"), OCGA § 50-21-20, et seq. Prior to trial, the GPA moved to dismiss Lawyer's maritime claim on the ground that because the GPA was an arm of the State, the Eleventh Amendment immunized it from suits for violations of federal law. The trial court reserved ruling on that motion until after trial.[1]

         The jury returned a verdict in which it found that GPA's negligence was the sole cause of Lawyer's injuries and awarding Lawyer damages of $4.5 million. The trial court thereafter considered GPA's motion to dismiss and denied the same. That same day, the trial court entered the order of judgment in favor of Lawyer and against the GPA. This appeal followed.

         1. The Eleventh Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that "[t]he Judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State." "It has long been settled" that the protections afforded by the Eleventh Amendment extend "not only [to] actions in which a State is actually named as the defendant, but also [to] certain actions against state agents and state instrumentalities." Regents of the Univ. of California v. Doe, 519 U.S. 425, 429 (II) (117 S.Ct. 900, 137 L.Ed.2d 55) (1997) (citations omitted). And in 1999, the United States Supreme Court held that the Eleventh Amendment also protects the states and any arm thereof from private suits brought against them in their own courts. Alden v. Maine, 527 U.S. 706, 754 (II) (4) (119 S.Ct. 2240, 144 L.Ed.2d 636) (1999).

         Several years after the decision in Alden, this Court summarily held that "[f]or purposes of determining Eleventh Amendment immunity, the GPA is an instrumentality of the State of Georgia." Ga. Ports Auth. v. Andre Rickmers Schiffsbeteiligungsges MBH & Co. KG, 262 Ga.App. 591, 593-594 (2) (585 S.E.2d 883) (2003), citing Hodges v. Tomberlin, 510 F.Supp. 1280, 1281 (S. D. Ga. 1980). Our Supreme Court granted certiorari to consider "whether the Georgia Ports Authority is entitled to immunity under the Eleventh Amendment . . . for claims sounding in maritime law." Hines v. Ga. Ports Auth., 278 Ga. 631, 631 (604 S.E.2d 189) (2004). As part of its analysis, our Supreme Court adopted the three-part test articulated by the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit for determining whether an entity is an instrumentality of the state for purposes of the Eleventh Amendment. Id. at 634. Under that test, whether a state entity is entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity depends upon three factors: "(1) how state law defines the entity; (2) what degree of control the state maintains over the entity; and (3) from where the entity derives its funds and who is responsible for satisfying the judgments against the entity." Id., citing Vierling v. Celebrity Cruises, 339 F.3d 1309, 1314 (11th Cir. 2003). After considering these factors, the Hines court concluded that the GPA "is not an arm of the State." Id. at 637. In doing so, however, the court indicated that the evidentiary record in the case was not as substantial as the Court might have liked, noting that the GPA "chose to submit its contention of immunity to the trial court on a motion to dismiss [based on the plaintiffs' failure to comply with the procedural requirements of the GTCA], rather than on a motion for summary judgment . . . ." Id. at 636, n. 32 (further observing that "[a]n analysis of the [GPA] budget would be most useful in determining whether it was dependent upon the State, " but that because of the case's procedural posture, no such analysis had been presented).

         Here, the GPA moved to dismiss Lawyer's federal law claim under OCGA § 9-11 -12 (b) (1) and (h) (3) for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. In support of this motion, the GPA filed a significant amount of documentary and testimonial evidence to demonstrate its argument that under the three-part test adopted in Hines, the GPA is an instrumentality of the State of Georgia. On appeal, therefore, the GPA asserts that the holding in Hines should be reconsidered in light of the evidentiary record in this case. Regardless of the merits of the GPA's arguments on this issue, however, we are not at liberty to reconsider Hines, as "this Court has no authority to overrule or modify a decision made by the Georgia Supreme Court." Chin Pak v. Ga. Dept. of Behavioral Health & Developmental Disabilities, 317 Ga.App. 486, 488 (731 S.E.2d 384) (2012). See also Ga. Const. of 1983, Art. VI, Sec. VI, Par. VI ("the decisions of the Supreme Court shall bind all other courts as precedents") (footnote omitted); Cargile v. State, 194 Ga. 20, 22 (1) (20 S.E.2d 416) (1942) (the constitutional provision that decisions of Supreme Court shall bind the Court of Appeals as precedents is applicable in all cases). Accordingly, because we are bound by the Georgia Supreme Court's holding that the GPA is not entitled to immunity under the Eleventh Amendment, we affirm the trial court's denial of the GPA's motion to dismiss Lawyer's maritime claim.

         2. In its second enumeration of error, the GPA contends that the trial court erred in denying its motion for directed verdict on Lawyer's maritime claim because he failed to present any evidence that the accident in question occurred on navigable waters.[2] This argument, however, ignores the admissions contained in the GPA's answer to Lawyer's complaint.

         Lawyer alleged in his complaint that at the time of the accident, the Ibrahim Dede "was located on the navigable waters of the United States for the purpose of loading and discharge of cargo." And in its answer, the GPA admitted this allegation. This part of the answer constitutes an admission in judicio, and because the GPA never sought to withdraw this admission or otherwise amend its answer, it is bound by the same. See Walker v. Jack Eckerd Corp., 209 Ga.App. 517, 519 (1) (434 S.E.2d 63) (1993) ("a party to a suit will not be allowed to [contest] an admission made in his pleadings, without withdrawing it from the record"); Four Square Constr. Co., Inc. v. Jellico Coal & Charcoal Co., 145 Ga.App. 650, 650 (244 S.E.2d 612) (1978); Evans v. Equico. Lessors, 140 Ga.App. 583, 583 (231 S.E.2d 534) (1976). Moreover, because this admission is binding on the GPA, it operated to relieve Lawyer of the burden of coming forward with evidence to prove that his injury occurred on navigable waters. Jabaley v. Jabaley, 208 Ga.App. 179, 179 (1) (430 S.E.2d 119) (1993). See also OCGA § 24-8-821 ("[w]ithout offering the same in evidence, either party may avail himself or herself of allegations or admissions made in the pleadings of the other"); NationsBank, N. A. v. Tucker, 231 Ga.App. 622, 624-625 (2) (500 S.E.2d 378) (1998) (an admission in defendant's answer that defendant neither withdraws nor amends becomes an admission in judicio and requires no further proof at trial). Accordingly, we find no error in the trial court's denial of the GPA's motion for a directed verdict on Lawyer's claim under federal maritime law.

         For the reasons set forth above, we affirm both the denial of the GPA's motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and the denial of its motion for a directed verdict.

         Judgment affirmed.

          McFadden, P. J., and ...


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