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In Georgia, the uninsured motorist who crashes into your car may be a law enforcement officer. What’s more, it’s not only legal for him to be uninsured, it may be advantageous economically to the city or county that employs him. That’s the message imparted by a Georgia Supreme Court opinion handed down Monday. The opinion covers two consolidated cases involving law enforcement officers who allegedly caused injuries or death during high-speed chases. In one case, the court held that the City of Savannah’s failure to get liability insurance for its police vehicles left its sovereign immunity intact, protecting it from a suit. In the other case, the court held that because Peach County had liability insurance on sheriffs’ vehicles, it waived sovereign immunity and is open to a suit. Cameron v. Lang, No. S00G1287 and Williams v. Solomon, No. S00G1180 (Sup. Ct. Ga. dec’d June 25, 2001). Those results are “seemingly inconsistent,” the high court’s unanimous opinion acknowledged. It called on the Georgia Legislature to remedy the legal incongruity. The court’s analysis of the two cases was based in part on OCGA Section 36-33-1, which states that a municipal corporation’s purchase of liability insurance doesn’t trigger an immunity waiver. But there’s an exception. That exception is OCGA Section 33-24-51, which makes municipal corporations’ purchase of liability insurance for motor vehicles discretionary and waives sovereign immunity up to the amount of coverage. “As these cases illustrate, the failure to require cities and counties to maintain liability insurance for the use of motor vehicles on official business has created inconsistent and often unfair results,” the court said. “Due to the danger to the public caused by high-speed chases and the choice of many local governments to forego purchasing liability insurance,” the opinion continued, “we urge the legislature to remove the city and county’s discretion and require them to procure liability insurance for their vehicles.” In Cameron v. Lang, Peach County’s liability insurance policy means the county has waived its governmental immunity. That means plaintiff Sheryl Ann Lang isn’t barred from suing. At the trial court level, Lang sued Deputy Sheriff Kenneth Cameron and others for the wrongful death of her husband, who was killed in a head-on collision with a car driven by a fleeing felon. The deputy sheriff was chasing the felon in his car when the crash occurred. But in Williams v. Solomon, the City of Savannah case, Savannah’s lack of insurance means it has governmental immunity and Robert Williams can’t sue. At trial, Williams claimed he was injured when his car collided with a police vehicle. The driver, officer Ramsey William Solomon, was chasing another car he believed was stolen. The question these cases raise is why cities and counties should invest in liability insurance for official motor vehicles if they don’t have to, legally, and when doing so waives their sovereign immunity. Patrick T. O’Connor, a partner at Savannah’s Oliver, Maner & Gray, represented Solomon. He says most small towns carry this type of insurance because they fear the financial exposure, were a plaintiff somehow to bypass their immunity barriers. ‘AN IMPORTANT DECISION’ But he acknowledges that in light of this opinion local governments may re-evaluate the purchase of motor vehicle liability insurance. “I think it’s a good case,” he says. “This is an important decision because it ties up more than one loose end in Georgia law.” In addition to the sovereign immunity issue, O’Connor says the case also settles previously tangled Georgia law on the issue of qualified or official immunity, which offers public employees acting in their official capacity limited protection from personal liability. Personal liability attaches only if the plaintiff proves the public employee was acting negligently in a ministerial act (an act done under the authority of a superior, or as a result of a specific duty), or with malice or an intent to injure. The issue before the Georgia Supreme Court in both cases was which should be proved first causation or immunity. The court, following the federal pattern, chose immunity. “[I]t would not be logical, efficient or fair to bypass the issue of qualified immunity in favor of the issue of causation,” the high court’s opinion said. “Instead, a law enforcement officer’s role in contributing to a collision during a high-speed chase, which usually involves questions of fact under OCGA Section 40-6-6, should be evaluated only after the court has determined that the officer is not immune from personal liability, which usually is a question of law.” Neither Solomon nor Cameron acted with malice or intent to injure in this case, the court said. Thomas C. Alexander of Jones, Cork & Miller in Macon represented the appellant in Cameron v. Lang. W. Carl Reynolds and Bradley J. Survant of Reynolds & McArthur in Macon represented the appellee. Harold J. Cronk of Savannah represented the appellant in the Williams v. Solomon case. In addition to O’Connor, attorneys for the appellee were Malcolm McKenzie III and William W. Shearouse Jr. of Weiner Shearouse Weitz in Savannah.

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