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City of Albany v. Ga Hy Imports, LLC

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Third Division

February 28, 2019

CITY OF ALBANY
v.
GA HY IMPORTS, LLC d/b/a AUTONATION HYUNDAI-ALBANY.

          GOBEIL, J., COOMER and HODGES, JJ.

          GOBEIL, JUDGE.

         In this interlocutory appeal, the City of Albany, Georgia ("the City") appeals from the Dougherty County Superior Court's denial of the City's motion for judgment on the pleadings in a civil suit brought by GA HY Imports, LLC d/b/a AutoNation Hyundai-Albany ("AutoNation") against the City related to damages AutoNation suffered after its property flooded due to the City's alleged failure to adequately drain storm water. In its motion, the City maintained that AutoNation's ante litem notice failed to comply with several provisions of the ante litem notice statute, OCGA § 36-33-5. The trial court denied the motion, concluding that AutoNation's notice substantially complied with the requirements of the statute. On appeal, the City argues that (1) AutoNation failed to comply with OCGA § 36-33-5 (f) and the trial court erred in implicitly finding that the law requires only substantial compliance with this provision; (2) AutoNation's letters failed to present timely written notice of its claims to the City for adjustment, as required under OCGA § 36-33-5 (a) and (b); (3) AutoNation failed to provide an adequate description of its claim, as required under OCGA § 36-33-5 (b) and (e); and (4) the trial court erred in finding that the City's investigation and response to AutoNation constituted a waiver of the defective ante litem notice. For the reasons that follow, we reverse.

         On March 18, 2016, counsel for AutoNation sent identical letters to the City Risk Manager, the City Attorney, and the City's Director of Engineering notifying those individuals that approximately 25 of AutoNation's vehicles were damaged following a flood on February 24, 2016, that "was caused by inadequately designed and/or maintained drainage features which are the responsibility of the City of Albany." The letters stated that the damages were "valued at over $800, 000," and that AutoNation was "investigating the incident to prepare for a claim against the City of Albany if it is deemed liable for the damage." The letters further stated that "AutoNation hereby puts the City of Albany on notice of this claim and notifies the City of Albany that it will hold these vehicles for fourteen (14) days from the date of this letter before disposing of the vehicles for salvage so that the vehicles may be inspected if desired." On July 21, 2016, the City Attorney sent AutoNation a letter denying its claim because "the City is protected by sovereign immunity."

         On November 22, 2016, AutoNation filed a complaint against the City, alleging claims for interference with enjoyment of its property, nuisance, trespass, negligence, and attorney fees. The City filed its answer, and then filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings, asserting that it was entitled to a judgment in its favor because AutoNation's ante litem notice did not meet the requirements of OCGA § 36-33-5. Specifically, the City argued that the letters were insufficient because they merely advised the City that AutoNation was investigating the incident to prepare for a claim, did not actually present a claim, and failed to provide a specific amount of monetary damages.

         In response, AutoNation asserted that its letters substantially complied with the requirements of the ante litem notice statute, as further evidenced by the fact that, in response to the letters, the City conducted its own investigation and inspected the damaged vehicles on two separate occasions and formally denied AutoNation's claim. In support of its position, AutoNation attached a sworn affidavit from its counsel detailing his correspondence with the City Attorney and the City Risk Manager, the City's inspections of the subject vehicles, and the City's letter denying AutoNation's claim.

         In reply, the City argued that AutoNation had not substantially complied with the requirements of the ante litem notice statute and that the cases cited by AutoNation all pre-dated amendments to the statute in 2014. Additionally, the City argued that AutoNation failed to serve the correct parties as set forth under the statute. The City then reiterated its argument that AutoNation's letters failed to present a claim and specify an amount of monetary damages, and, even though the City may have conducted an investigation, it was not estopped from asserting that the ante litem notice was defective.

         Following a hearing on the motion, the trial court denied relief, explaining as follows:

The [c]ourt hereby finds that [AutoNation's] letters substantially complied with the requirements of O.C.G.A. § 36-33-5, having presented timely written notice of Plaintiff's claim to Defendant for adjustment, by stating the time, place, and extent of Plaintiff's alleged injuries and the alleged negligence of Defendant which caused such injury. The [c]ourt further finds that following receipt of such notice from Plaintiff, Defendant undertook investigation of the subject flooding event (and the alleged damages caused thereby) by conducting no fewer than two separate inspections of Plaintiff's property on or about March 22, 2016, and April 11, 2016, after which time, the City Attorney . . . transmitted a letter to Plaintiff's counsel, dated July 21, 2016, advising of the City's denial of Plaintiff's claim.
As such, Defendant has not shown good cause entitling it to judgment on the pleadings, and Defendant's Motion is accordingly denied. . . . The trial court certified its order for immediate review, pursuant to OCGA § 5-6-34 (b), and we granted the City's application for leave to file an interlocutory appeal.

         On appeal, we review de novo the trial court's decision on a motion for judgment on the pleadings

to determine whether the undisputed facts appearing from the pleadings entitle the movant to judgment as a matter of law. The grant of a motion for judgment on the pleadings under OCGA § 9-11-12 (c) is proper only where there is a complete failure to state a cause of action or defense. For purposes of the motion, all well-pleaded material allegations by the nonmovant are taken as true, and all denials by the movant are taken as false. But the trial court need not adopt a party's legal conclusions based on these facts.

Caldwell v. Church, 341 Ga.App. 852, 855-56 (2) (802 S.E.2d 835) (2017) (citation and ...


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