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Columbus Consolidated Government v. Woody

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Fifth Division

June 30, 2017

COLUMBUS CONSOLIDATED GOVERNMENT
v.
FRANKLIN WOODY

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

          Bethel, Judge.

         The Columbus Consolidated Government (Columbus) appeals from the denial of its motion for judgment on the pleadings. Columbus asserts that sovereign immunity bars the claims of Franklin Woody because the injuries he sustained while welding a garbage truck belonging to Columbus as part of a prison work detail did not arise from the negligent use of a motor vehicle. We agree and reverse because the statute providing wavier of sovereign immunity is limited in scope and does not allow a plaintiff to bring suit to recover for injuries arising solely out of maintenance of a covered motor vehicle.

          "On appeal, we review de novo the trial court's decision on a motion for judgment on the pleadings, and we construe the complaint in a light most favorable to [Woody], drawing all reasonable inferences in his favor." Hewell v. Walton Cty, 292 Ga.App. 510, 510-11 (664 S.E.2d 875) (2008) (citation omitted). So viewed, the pleadings allege that on October 12, 2011, Franklin Woody was working a prisoner work detail. Woody was assigned the task of welding spots on the body of a garbage truck belonging to Columbus. Sparks from the welding ignited Woody's prison jumpsuit and he sustained injuries. Woody brought a personal injury action against Columbus.[1] Columbus filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings, arguing that Woody's claims were barred by the doctrine of sovereign immunity. The trial court denied Columbus' motion, and this appeal followed.

         "Under Georgia law, sovereign immunity is an immunity from suit, rather than a mere defense to liability, " and therefore, whether a governmental defendant has waived its sovereign immunity is a threshold issue. Bd. of Regents, of Univ. Sys. of Ga. v. Canas, 295 Ga.App. 505, 507 (1) (672 S.E.2d 471) (2009) overruled on other grounds by Rivera v. Washington, 298 Ga. 770 (784 S.E.2d 775) (2016). Sovereign immunity extends to the county and can only be waived by a legislative act of the General Assembly specifically providing for the wavier and its extent. Hewell, 292 Ga.App. at 512 (citation omitted); see also Ga. Const. Art. I, Sec. II, Par. IX. Accordingly, "[a] waiver of sovereign immunity must be established by the party seeking to benefit from that waiver." McCobb v. Clayton Cty., 309 Ga.App. 217, 218 (1) (a) (710 S.E.2d 207) (2011) (citation and punctuation omitted).

         The sole issue before this Court is whether OCGA §§ 33-24-51 (b) and 36-92-2 waive sovereign immunity for injuries arising from the maintenance work performed by Woody on the garbage truck. In response to Columbus's motion for judgment on the pleadings, Woody argued, and the trial court found, that OCGA §§ 33-24-51 (b) and 36-92-2 waive Columbus's sovereign immunity.[2] However, an analysis of the plain language of these statutes as illuminated by their history shows that that determination was incorrect.

         Prior to 2005, subsection (a) of OCGA § 33-24-51 provided that political subdivisions of the state, including municipalities, were authorized to procure liability and property damage insurance "arising by reason of ownership, maintenance, operation, or use of any motor vehicle by the political subdivision. . . ." Ga. L. 1960, p. 289, § 1; Ga. L. 1985, p. 1054, § 1. Subsection (b) then provided that when a political subdivision purchased "the insurance authorized by subsection (a) . . . its governmental immunity shall be waived to the extent of the amount of insurance so purchased." Id. Thus, in Chamlee v. Henry County Bd. of Educ., 239 Ga.App. 183, 188 (2) (521 S.E.2d 78) (1999), this Court held that subsection (b) "provides for waiver of sovereign immunity to the extent of the amount of liability insurance purchased . . . that arises out of either ownership, maintenance, operation, or use of a motor vehicle."[3]

         Effective in 2005, however, the legislature amended the statute to change fundamentally how the waiver of sovereign immunity worked, and it did so largely by adding a new first sentence to subsection (b) and by adding several related new code sections, most importantly, OCGA § 36-92-2. As amended, subsections (a) and (b) of OCGA § 33-24-51, provide as follows:

(a)A municipal corporation, a county, or any other political subdivision of this state is authorized in its discretion to secure and provide insurance to cover liability for damages on account of bodily injury or death resulting from bodily injury to any person or for damage to property of any person, or for both arising by reason of ownership, maintenance, operation, or use of any motor vehicle by the municipal corporation, county, or any other political subdivision of this state under its management, control, or supervision, whether in a governmental undertaking or not, and to pay premiums for the insurance coverage.
(b) The sovereign immunity of local government entities for a loss arising out of claims for the negligent use of a covered motor vehicle is waived as provided in Code Section 36-92-2. Whenever a municipal corporation, a county, or any other political subdivision of this state shall purchase the insurance authorized by subsection (a) of this Code section to provide liability coverage for the negligence of any duly authorized officer, agent, servant, attorney, or employee in the performance of his or her official duties in an amount greater than the amount of immunity waived as in Code Section 36-92-2, its governmental immunity shall be waived to the extent of the amount of insurance so purchased. . . .

OCGA § 33-24-51 (emphasis supplied). Correspondingly, new Code section 36-92-2 established the degree to which immunity was waived under the new first sentence of OCGA § 33-24-51 (b) for "negligent use of a covered motor vehicle." OCGA § 36-92-2 (a). And it also provides that

[t]he sovereign immunity of local government entities for a loss arising out of claims for the negligent use of a covered motor vehicle is waived only to the extent and in the manner provided in this chapter and only with respect to actions brought in the courts of this state.

OCGA § 36-92-2 (b). Thus, as the Georgia Supreme Court has summarized, OCGA § 33-24-51, as amended, "create[s] a two-tier scheme within which local governments are deemed to have waived sovereign immunity":

The first tier . . . requires local entities to waive sovereign immunity-up to certain prescribed limits-for incidents involving motor vehicles regardless of whether they procure automobile liability insurance. The second tier, enacted by OCGA ยง 33-24-51 (b), and as revised [effective in 2005], provides for the waiver of sovereign immunity to the extent a local entity ...

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