P. J., COOMER and MARKLE, JJ.
O'Donnell was injured after performing a series of
physical exercises as punishment for violation of the honor
code while a student at Georgia Military College ("the
College"). She filed a civil suit for negligence against
the Board of Trustees of GMC ("GMC") and individual
members of the board and staff, seeking damages arising from
the injuries she sustained. The trial court denied GMC's
motion to dismiss, as well as its motion for summary
judgment. On appeal, GMC argues that the trial court erred in
(1) denying its motion to dismiss based on the discretionary
function exception to a waiver of sovereign immunity under
OCGA § 50-21-24 (2); (2) denying its motion for summary
judgment where OCGA § 20-2-1000 (b) provides for
immunity for the acts or omissions of educators resulting
from the discipline of a student; and (3) denying its motion
for summary judgment where no GMC educator breached a legal
duty that proximately caused O'Donnell's injuries.
Because O'Donnell's suit is barred by the doctrine of
sovereign immunity, we reverse.
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." (Citation
omitted.) Douglas v. Dept. of Juvenile Justice, 349
Ga.App. 10 (825 S.E.2d 395) (2019).
viewed, the evidence shows that, in October 2013,
O'Donnell was a high school junior at the College when
she was caught plagiarizing a biology lab report. She
admitted to violating the honor code, and was given
punishment of ten hours of "bullring," GMC's
after school retraining session consisting of a series of
physical exercises, to be completed for one hour each day.
The bullring was run by Junior Reserve Officers' Training
Corps ("JROTC") instructors, and the physical
exercises complied with GMC JROTC standard operating
procedures ("SOPs") and the army physical readiness
training manual ("PRT"). Per the SOPs, the
instructors determined which exercises were performed, as
well as the duration and number of those exercises. Students
were required to complete the entire hour of bullring in
order to receive full credit; if they failed to complete the
exercises, they were required to repeat the entire hour.
first day of participating in bullring, O'Donnell was
required to perform numerous exercises, such as running,
pushups, and lunges. She started to struggle during her
second run and set of pushups, and, although she knew that
she could stop the exercises if she needed to, she chose to
proceed so that she would not have to repeat the entire
session. O'Donnell struggled through the remainder of the
exercises; she cried, was flushed, she was breathing heavily,
and she felt pain in her legs, arms, and knees. When one
instructor noticed she was breathing heavily and asked if she
needed to see the nurse, O'Donnell replied that she was
trying to catch her breath.
bullring, O'Donnell noticed her arms were sore and
shaking, and she took a warm bath and placed ice on her arms
once she got home that evening. At school the next morning,
O'Donnell proceeded to the nurse's office because she
could not move her arms. The nurse noted O'Donnell had
swelling in her left arm, her right arm was sore, and she had
bruising on her knees, and she gave O'Donnell an ice
pack. Unable to complete classes for that day, O'Donnell
checked out of school and, when her pain worsened, she sought
medical treatment at a local hospital. Ultimately,
O'Donnell was diagnosed with rhabdomyolysis, a condition
resulting from severe muscle breakdown and the release of
proteins into the blood stream, and was admitted to the
hospital for ten days.
result of her injuries, O'Donnell sued GMC and individual
members of the board and staff (collectively, "the
defendants") under the Georgia Tort Claims Act
("GTCA"), OCGA § 50-21-20 et seq., alleging
state law negligence claims and violation of civil
rights. GMC filed its motion for summary judgment,
asserting (1) there was no evidence any of its employees
breached a duty proximately causing O'Donnell's
injuries; and (2) GMC had immunity from O'Donnell's
claims under OCGA § 20-2-1000 (b). GMC also filed a
motion to dismiss based on the discretionary function
exception to the waiver of sovereign immunity under OCGA
§ 50-21-24 (2).
two hearings,  the trial court denied the motions to
dismiss and for summary judgment,  finding that OCGA
§§ 20-2-732 and 20-2-1000 did not waive immunity
given to educators in connection with student disciplinary
action; there was a jury question as to whether the
punishment O'Donnell endured was excessive or unduly
severe; GMC was not entitled to sovereign immunity under the
exception to the GTCA's waiver of immunity under OCGA
§ 50-21-24 (2); and there was a jury question as to
whether GMC breached a duty of care to O'Donnell, and
whether that breach was the proximate cause of her injuries.
GMC filed an application for interlocutory review, which this
Court granted. This appeal followed.
argues that the trial court erred in failing to dismiss
O'Donnell's negligence claims against it because her
claims are barred by sovereign immunity. Specifically, GMC
contends that, although the GTCA provides a limited waiver of
immunity to state officers and employees, the conduct
complained of here falls within an exception under OCGA
§ 50-21-24 (2). We agree.
preliminary matter, we note the unusual procedural posture of
this case. GMC first filed its motion for summary judgment,
and subsequently filed a motion to dismiss based on sovereign
immunity. Regardless of this procedural posture,
the applicability of sovereign immunity to claims brought
against the State is a jurisdictional issue. . . .
Therefore, the applicability of sovereign immunity is a
threshold determination and, if it does apply, a court lacks
jurisdiction over the case and, concomitantly, lacks
authority to decide the merits of a claim that is barred.
(Citations and punctuation omitted; emphasis supplied.)
McConnell v. Dept. of Labor, 302 Ga. 18, 18-19 (805
S.E.2d 79) (2017). "Any suit against the State barred by
sovereign immunity is subject to dismissal pursuant to OCGA
§ 9-11-12 (b) (1) for lack of subject matter
jurisdiction." (Citations omitted.) Dept. of Public
Safety v. Johnson, 343 Ga.App. 22, 22-23 (806 S.E.2d
195) (2017). And "[a]s a state institution, GMC is
entitled to sovereign immunity except to the extent sovereign
immunity has been waived." (Citation and punctuation
omitted.) Ga. Military College v. Santamorena, 237
Ga.App. 58, 59 (1) (514 S.E.2d 82) (1999); see also OCGA
§ 20- 3-541. With this framework in mind, we turn to
GMC's argument on sovereign immunity.
GTCA is "the exclusive remedy for any tort committed by
a state officer or employee." ...