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Farmer v. Georgia Department of Corrections

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Fourth Division

June 19, 2018

FARMER
v.
GEORGIA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS.

          DILLARD, C. J., DOYLE, P. J., and MERCIER, J.

          DILLARD, CHIEF JUDGE.

         Tammi Farmer appeals the trial court's dismissal of her negligence action against the Georgia Department of Corrections ("GDOC"), arguing that the court erred by (1) finding that her ante-litem notice failed to comply with the Georgia Tort Claims Act's ("GTCA") requirement that the notice provide the amount of the loss claimed and (2) considering documents outside the pleadings. For the reasons set forth infra, we affirm.

         The record shows that Farmer filed a complaint for damages against the GDOC, alleging that on May 16, 2013, while in custody of the Women's Probation Detention Center in Claxton, Georgia and participating in a work-release program, she slipped and fell in pallet-jack fluid that leaked on the floor in her work area, resulting in a torn meniscus and ACL in her right knee. Farmer's complaint also asserted that, prior to filing this negligence action, she complied with all of the GTCA's notice requirements. And in support, Farmer attached a letter dated September 27, 2013, addressed to the GDOC, which provided notice of her claim, as well as an accompanying receipt of delivery.

         The GDOC answered Farmer's complaint, denying liability for negligence and asserting several affirmative defenses, including that she failed to strictly comply with the GTCA's notice requirements. Simultaneously with its answer, the GDOC also filed a motion to dismiss Farmer's complaint, arguing that the trial court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction because her ante-litem notice did not comply with the GTCA's requirements that she provide the amount of the loss claimed and identify the acts or omissions resulting in her alleged loss. In support of its motion, the GDOC attached a portion of Farmer's medical records evincing that she received medical treatment prior to the date of the ante-litem notice. On August 5, 2015, Farmer filed her response to the GDOC's motion, noting, inter alia, that on August 26, 2014, she submitted a settlement demand to the GDOC for $100, 000, and she attached a copy of her settlement-demand package. Following further briefing by the parties and a hearing on the matter, the trial court granted the GDOC's motion to dismiss the complaint, finding that Farmer failed to strictly comply with the GTCA's notice requirement that she provide a specific dollar amount of her alleged losses or a range of such losses in her ante-litem notice. This appeal follows.

         We review de novo a trial court's ruling on a motion to dismiss based on sovereign-immunity grounds, "which is a matter of law."[1] 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."[2] With these guiding principles in mind, we turn now to Farmer's specific claims of error.

         1. Farmer first argues that the trial court erred by dismissing her claim based on its finding that the ante-litem notice did not strictly comply with the notice requirements of the GTCA. We disagree.

         The GTCA is a limited waiver of the State's sovereign immunity, crafted—as is constitutionally authorized—by our General Assembly, and "not subject to modification or abrogation by our courts, and requires a party with a potential tort claim against the State to provide [it] with notice of the claim prior to filing suit thereon."[3] Moreover, the ante-litem notice requirements serve the purpose of "ensuring that the State receives adequate notice of the claim to facilitate settlement before the filing of a lawsuit."[4] 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."[5] To be sure, 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."[6] But even in cases that arguably reflect some degree of leniency, the plaintiffs "complied with the plain language of the ante-litem-notice requirements."[7] Indeed, in one such case, our Supreme Court explicitly reaffirmed that "the GTCA must be strictly construed."[8] Suffice it to say, "substantial compliance is not strict compliance."[9] Strict compliance is "exactly what it sounds like: strict."[10] Thus, 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."[11]

         As to those requirements, OCGA. § 50-21-26 (a) (5) provides that an ante-litem notice must

state, to the extent of the claimant's knowledge and belief and as may be practicable under the circumstances, the following: (A) [t]he name of the state government entity, the acts or omissions of which are asserted as the basis of the claim; (B) [t]he time of the transaction or occurrence out of which the loss arose; (C) [t]he place of the transaction or occurrence; (D) The nature of the loss suffered; (E) [t]he amount of the loss claimed; and (F) [t]he acts or omissions which caused the loss.[12]

         Here, in granting the GDOC's motion to dismiss, the trial court found that Farmer's ante-litem notice failed to strictly comply with OCGA § 50-21-26 (a) (5) (E)'s requirement that it specify the amount of the loss claimed because it did not "provide a specific dollar amount [or] . . . a range of losses." The trial court's finding is supported by the record.[13]

         As previously mentioned, Farmer's ante-litem notice, dated September 27, 2013, informed the GDOC that she suffered an injury on May 16, 2013, while participating in a work-release program. Specifically, the notice indicated that Farmer's injuries resulted from a slip and fall and required medical attention, as well as hospitalization. As to the amount of the loss claimed, the notice stated, "The damages amount has not yet been determined[;] however, [Farmer] will be seeking full payment of any and all damages to her person, physically[, ] and mentally." The notice also advised that Farmer had already been treated for her injuries. Lastly, the notice informed the GDOC that Farmer planned to seek damages for any future disability resulting from her injuries.

         Contrary to Farmer's contentions, her argument that the ante-litem notice strictly complied with OCGA § 50-21-26 (a) (5) (E)'s requirement that it include the amount of the loss claimed is foreclosed by the Supreme Court of Georgia's decision in Board of Regents v. Myers, [14] and other precedent materially indistinguishable from this case. In Myers, the plaintiff injured her left ankle when she stepped into a hole in the parking lot of a state college, and her ante-litem notice provided, in relevant part, that "the amount of [her] loss is yet to be determined as she is still incurring medical bills and does not yet know the full extent of her injury."[15] In evaluating the sufficiency of the plaintiff's ante-litem notice, our Supreme Court explained that OCGA § 50-21-26 (a) (5) (E) requires that "a claimant must state the amount of the loss claimed to the extent of the claimant's knowledge and belief and as may be practicable under the circumstances."[16] And ultimately, the Myers Court held that the plaintiff's notice "failed to strictly comply with that ante litem notice requirement because it did not state any amount of loss whatsoever."[17] In doing so, the Court noted that "the extent of [the plaintiff's] knowledge and belief at the time of notice included, at a minimum, the medical expenses she had incurred thus far."[18] Indeed, according to our Supreme Court, "a claimant is not relieved from giving some notice to the State even if her knowledge is incomplete or she must rely on her belief."[19]

         Similarly to the plaintiff in Myers, Farmer's ante-litem notice did not provide any amount of the loss claimed or range of losses. Nevertheless, in an attempt to distinguish Myers and other similar cases, Farmer argues that, although her initial notice did not provide an amount of the loss claimed, she subsequently sent the GDOC a settlement-demand package, which contained the details regarding her injuries, the amount of her medical expenses, and a settlement demand for $100, 000. But Farmer concedes that her settlement-demand package was not sent until after expiration of the statutory 12-month period for providing an ante-litem notice.[20] And as with all of OCGA § 50-21-26 (a) (5)'s notice requirements, providing a timely ante-litem notice is a jurisdictional prerequisite to filing suit.[21]

         Farmer next argues that she strictly complied with the GTCA's notice requirements because OCGA § 50-21-26 (a) (5) (E) does not require a claimant to state the exact amount of the loss claimed when the amount of the loss is "ongoing and unknown or otherwise impractical to provide at the time the ante litem notice is provided to the State." But Farmer ignores that her ante-litem notice was not deficient because she failed to provide the exact amount of her total loss, but rather because it failed to state any amount or range of amounts at all. Indeed, the GTCA's ante-litem notice provisions "clearly contemplate the possibility that a claimant may have imperfect information regarding various facets of her claim at the time her notice is submitted."[22] As a result, the GTCA does not require that "a claimant give notice of the 'entire loss, ' the 'complete loss, ' or the 'total loss.'"[23] Instead, the statute's plain language merely "requires notice of the amount of the loss claimed at that time, within the belief and knowledge of the claimant, as may be practicable under the circumstances."[24] Nevertheless, Farmer is not relieved from "giving some notice to the State even if her knowledge is incomplete or she must rely on her belief."[25] For example, Farmer—in addition to providing the amount of the loss claimed, which would have included her medical expenses thus far—could have also stated that, based on her belief, "there would be some pain and suffering damages or lost wages in the future, the amounts of which she did not yet have knowledge and could not practicably provide at that time."[26] In fact, Farmer's notice did advise that she might suffer additional losses in the future.

         Although Farmer's ante-litem notice indicated that, prior to the date of the notice, she had already received medical treatment for her injuries, she argues that it was not possible to provide the amount of her loss because she had not yet received any medical bills or other documents informing her of those losses.[27] Farmer also finds it significant that she continues to experience pain and is uncertain about "two very different directions [as to] her future medical treatment." But again, Farmer was not required to provide the exact amount included on her medical bills in the ante-litem notice. All that was required under the GTCA was for her to provide an estimated amount of those expenses based on her knowledge of the treatment she had received as of the time the ante-litem notice was sent.

         Nevertheless, Farmer relies on several distinguishable cases that do not address OCGA § 50-21-26 (a) (5) (E)'s requirement that the claimant provide notice of the amount of the loss claimed and that, unlike Myers, involve situations in which the specific type of notice at issue was incomplete, inaccurate, or even sufficient, not entirely omitted.[28] But this is not a case where "the extent of the injuries was unknown, or the notice was merely imprecise, or the claimant made a good faith mistake."[29] Significantly, providing the notice required by OCGA § 50-21-26 (a) (5) (E) "does not bind a claimant to an amount of the loss claimed."[30] To the contrary, the function of the ante-litem notice is "not to 'bind' a plaintiff to a certain amount, but to provide notice to the State of the magnitude of the claim, as practicable and to the extent of the claimant's knowledge and belief at the time of the notice."[31] And because Farmer provided no notice of the amount of her loss, she failed to strictly comply with GTCA's notice requirements, the State did not waive sovereign immunity, and the trial court lacked jurisdiction to adjudicate her claim.[32]

         2. Farmer also argues that the trial court erred by considering documents outside the pleadings. This ...


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