The city had a $5 million policy through the Atlantic Specialty Insurance Company. The policy covered negligent acts related to the city’s motor vehicles up to $5 million, but also included immunity notices stating that Atlantic has no obligation to pay damages. (Image credit: Xrmap)

The Georgia Supreme Court recently issued an opinion that appears to limit the amount a family can receive in a wrongful death lawsuit against the city of College Park, Georgia, stemming from a 2016 police accident in which a grandmother and two of them stayed behind their grandchildren are dead.

The Georgia Supreme Court ruled that the city failed to purchase insurance coverage for alleged negligence and reckless claims over the applicable $700,000 automatic waiver of state immunity, overturning the Circuit Court’s decision that the policy increased the waiver of state immunity regardless of their immunity endorsements.

The question was whether Georgia law allowed the city of College Park to be liable under its insurance policy for the deaths of the three family members in excess of the legal limit of $700,000.

The accident happened on January 31, 2016. Grandmother Dorothy Wright and her two grandchildren, 12-year-old Cameron Costner and 6-year-old Layla Partridge, were on their way to church when they were hit by a driver being pursued by the College Park Police. Her lawyers have described the case as a “reckless, high-speed pursuit.” Joi and Douglass Partridge and Floyd Costner, the plaintiffs, filed a lawsuit against the city alleging negligence and recklessness that resulted in the wrongful deaths of the three deceased. The city raised sovereign immunity in defense.

The city had a $5 million policy through the Atlantic Specialty Insurance Company. The policy covered negligent acts related to the city’s motor vehicles up to $5 million, but also included immunity notices stating that Atlantic has no obligation to pay damages. Plaintiffs allege that the insurance policy for the three deaths is $5 million, while Atlantic alleges that under the law and the terms of the insurance policy, the insurance policy is capped at $700,000.

The family’s attorneys argued that the existence of this insurance policy nullifies the city’s ability to be held to the $700,000 cap, which under state law is intended to serve as a standard waiver of sovereign immunity statutory provisions that would otherwise prevent a person from to sue a city at all. Atlantic Specialty argued that their policy was only designed to cover College Park beyond the $700,000 required by law in matters not covered by state immunity.

The policy contained a note stating: “[w]We are not obligated under this policy to pay ‘damages’ on your behalf unless the defenses of sovereign and governmental immunity do not apply to you.” The approval also adds that the policy “is not the intention of or reflects [the City]To waive or waive all defenses of sovereign and state immunity available to any insured, whether based in statute, common law or otherwise, including Section 36-33-1 of the Georgia Code or any amendment thereto.

The Georgia Supreme Court agreed with Atlantic Specialty, noting that the mere existence of the policy does not remove states’ immunity beyond the $700,000 cap. This decision overruled previous decisions of the original trial and the Georgia Court of Appeals in favor of the $5 million reward.

Confirmation of immunity does not render the policy’s value in excess of $700,000 meaningless. The premiums that the city paid earned coverage up to the legal limits for state immunity waivers and up to $5 million total for claims that do not have state immunity.

According to a press release from the Georgia Supreme Court, “. . . The court considered whether the city had discretionary liability insurance in excess of $700,000 that actually covered the disputed claims. And the court found that based on a simple reading of the policy’s immunity endorsements, the city’s insurance did not cover claims — like the plaintiffs’ claims — to which the state immunity defense applied.”

Insurance Protection Law Center Editor’s Note: This is a landmark case for Georgia. Historically, attorneys have been able to bypass the recovery cap in cases where an insurance policy was in place, but as of this Opinion, attorneys can no longer expect to recover the policy limits in cases where the policy specifically excludes claims that are sovereign claims immunity applies. In this case, families can still receive some compensation after the death of their family member, but recovery will be capped at the legal limit of $700,000.

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