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Douglas v. Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice.

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Fourth Division

February 28, 2019

DOUGLAS et al.
v.
GEORGIA DEPARTMENT OF JUVENILE JUSTICE.

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

          DOYLE, PRESIDING JUDGE.

         Terell Douglas and Rosie Greene, parents of T. R. D., appeal from the dismissal of their personal injury suit against the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice ("the Department") seeking damages arising from injuries sustained by T. R. D. while he was detained at a youth detention facility operated by the Department. The parents contend that the trial court erred by (1) concluding that the parents failed to establish a waiver of sovereign immunity because their ante litem notice was deficient under the Georgia Tort Claims Act[1] ("GTCA"), (2) ruling on the Department's motion to dismiss without allowing discovery, and (3) concluding that the Department was not barred from asserting its immunity based on laches. Discerning no error, we affirm.

         "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. Factual findings are sustained if there is evidence supporting them, and the burden of proof is on the party seeking the waiver of immunity."[2]

         The record shows that the parents sued the Department, seeking damages for alleged negligence based on an injury to T. R. D. while he was a minor in custody at the Bill E. Ireland Youth Development Campus ("the Detention Facility") in 2009. The complaint alleged that on September 25, 2009, T. R. D. was injured when a Department employee "negligently closed an automatic steel door in a manner that caused [T. R. D.'s] finger to be traumatically amputated." The complaint also stated that as a result of the injury, T. R. D. required surgery, and the parents incurred expenses and missed work facilitating his medical care. It is undisputed that the Department paid T. R. D.'s immediate medical bills.

         Within one month of the injury, the parents provided an ante litem notice to the Department, the Department of Administrative Services, and the Detention Facility. That notice described the injury and identified the parents' claims for negligence, among other claims. With respect to the amount of loss claimed, the notice did not specify any amount, instead stating as follows:

As a result of [the] traumatic amputation, [T. R. D.] required surgery. [T. R. D.] is still receiving treatment for his injury, and he is still experiencing pain today. . . Rosie Greene has on numerous occasions had to transport [her son] . . . for medical treatment [causing her to miss work]. Because of these trips . . . Rosie Green would have additional claims for monetary loss and mileage. Please advise if this ante litem notice is not sufficient to apprise you of the claims which Rosie Green has individually and as mother of [T. R. D.] against the entities that you represent for which she is seeking relief and damages.

         In December 2009, the Department completed its investigation of the allegations and disputed liability, contending that "[t]his injury was caused when [T. R. D.] put his hand at the top of the door to prevent it from closing." Accordingly, the Department made an offer to settle the dispute for $1, 000. The parents did not accept the offer and instead demanded $20, 000; after the parties were unable to agree on a settlement amount, the parents filed the instant suit in January 2015.

         In February 2015, the Department answered the complaint, denying liability, and moved to dismiss the suit, arguing that the parents' ante litem notice failed to include the amount of loss claimed as required by the GTCA. The next month, the parents filed a motion to defer a ruling on the Department's motion to dismiss until the parents could conduct discovery. Following a hearing at which all parties appeared, the trial court denied the parents' motion to defer a ruling and granted the Department's motion to dismiss based on the parents' deficient ante litem notice. The parents now appeal.

         1. The parents contend that the trial court erred by dismissing their claim because, they argue, their ante litem notice satisfied the requirements of the GTCA. We disagree.

The GTCA provides for a limited waiver of the State's sovereign immunity.[3] In order to effectuate this waiver, certain prerequisites must be met. The GTCA 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. [Among other things, t]he notice must identify, to the extent of the claimant's knowledge and belief and as may be practicable under the circumstances, . . . the nature and amount of the loss suffered. . . .
[The] ante litem requirements ensure that the State receives adequate notice of the claim to facilitate settlement before the filing of a lawsuit. . . If the ante litem notice requirements are not met, then the State does not waive sovereign immunity, and therefore, the trial court lacks subject matter jurisdiction.[4]

         Last, while courts should not apply a "hyper-technical construction" to the GTCA, "strict compliance with [the] ante litem notice requirements is necessary, and substantial compliance is insufficient."[5]

         Here, it is undisputed that the parents' ante litem notice did not state the amount of loss suffered, merely describing the injury to [T. R. D.] and stating that his mother "would have additional claims for monetary loss and mileage." As argued by the Department and stated by the trial court in its order, this is not sufficient. For ...


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