Justice Robert Benham, Supreme Court of Georgia Justice Robert Benham, Supreme Court of Georgia (Photo: John Disney/ALM)

Overruling the trial court and Court of Appeals, the Georgia Supreme Court has revived a lawsuit filed by a laboratory technician against a company whose employee accidentally shot him after bringing a loaded handgun into the lab on a service call.

The unanimous decision said both lower courts misconstrued a Georgia law allowing employees to bring guns to their workplace as long as the weapons are locked in their private vehicles, noting that—in the case at hand—the pistol-packing service rep was in a company-owned vehicle on a client’s property.

The Business Security and Employee Privacy Act does immunize an employer “arising out of the transportation, storage, possession or use of a firearm” by an employee, wrote Justice Robert Benham.

But, he wrote, the lower courts failed to observe a key phrase of the statute: “pursuant to this code section.”

The 2008 statute—dubbed the “Bring Your Guns to Work Act” by critics—expressly applies to privately-owned vehicles parked on company property.

“This incident did not even occur on the employer’s premises,” wrote Benham, “but on the premises of the employer’s customer. … No support exists for the proposition that the code section’s purpose was to immunize employers from all firearm-related tort liability.”

As detailed in the complaint and other filings, the incident happened in 2013 when Jeremy Wilson, then a field service engineer for medical supply company Beckman Coulter, was on a maintenance call to Albany Area Primary Healthcare.

Lab tech Claude Lucas, then 59, was outside and greeted Wilson, whom he knew from previous visits. As they were about to re-enter the building, Lucas noted there had been several recent car break-ins in the parking lot.

Wilson, worried that his .40 caliber handgun might be stolen, retrieved the weapon, and the two went inside. He was attempting to clear the gun by ejecting a chambered round when it discharged, hitting Lucas in the abdomen.

Lucas underwent surgery and accrued more than $100,000 in medical bills.

Wilson was not charged but was fired two days later for violating company policy by having a handgun in a company vehicle.

Lucas sued Wilson and Beckman Coulter in Fulton County State Court, accusing Wilson of negligence and Beckman Coulter of negligent supervision and respondeat superior.

In 2015, State Court Judge Jay Roth dismissed the claims against Beckman Coulter by ruling, among other things, that the statute shielded the company from liability.

In 2016, the Georgia Court of Appeals agreed, ruling there was nothing in the law “limiting the scope of employer immunity to incidents involving employee-owned vehicles, nor is there a separate subsection of the statute expressly providing a limitation or exception” to that immunity.

In appealing to the high court, Lucas’ attorney, Dustin Brown of Columbus’ Daughtery, Crawford & Brown zeroed in on the same language as Benham’s opinion, telling the Daily Report at the time that the law “provides related immunity to employers for occurrences arising out of use of a firearm ‘pursuant to this code section,’ which by its plain language is limited to privately-owned vehicles of employees or invited guests.”

In Benham’s opinion, interpreting the statute without that caveat renders the phrase “mere surplusage.”

“Although the Court of Appeals recites the rule that courts must seek to avoid a construction that makes some language a statute mere surplusage, it goes on to do just that,” Benham wrote.

In a footnote, Benham was careful to point out that the ruling “is not to say that [Beckman Coulter] is necessarily liable to Lucas, but only that the statute does not provide immunity in this case.”

Justice Nels Peterson was disqualified from ruling in the case, and was replaced by Gwinnett Superior Court Judge Kathryn Schrader.

Brown, said he was pleased with the ruling, which he described as “critically important not only to my client’s claims but also to preserving the legal rights of other Georgia citizens who suffer firearm-related injuries.”

Wilson, he confirmed, is still a co-defendant in the case.  

There was no immediate response from Beckman Coulter’s attorneys, Hunton & Williams partners Kurt Powell and Robert Dumbacher, or from Wilson’s lawyer, Clayton Adams of Columbus’ Brown & Adams.