Digging Deeper: Georgia Tort Claims Act, who does it protect? - WALB.com, South Georgia News, Weather, Sports

Digging Deeper: Georgia Tort Claims Act, who does it protect?

The Georgia Supreme Court unanimously ruled two former Dougherty County Police Officers can't be sued for their role in a fatal crash.

They were headed to a work detail in Savannah when one officer rear-ended a trailer, causing the vehicle to flip.  The passenger was killed.  His family claims the officers were negligent, but justices say state law protects the officers from lawsuits.

Dougherty County Officer Jeremiah Fenn told investigators he looked down to adjust his computer and CD player before striking the back of this trailer driven by William Wilcox April 3rd, 2007. Wilcox lost control and flipped. His son Milton was ejected and killed. Charges were never filed. The Wilcox's filed a lawsuit against Officer Fenn and Officer Oscar Gilliam for negligence, but because they were on a work detail, the Supreme Court ruled they're protected under the Georgia Tort Claims Act.

"The government is a big easy target and it would be difficult for the tax payers to fund everything if it were not for this concept," said Attorney Tommy Coleman.

Digging deeper we learned the law gives government employees and the entities themselves, immunity from being sued, as long as employees are acting in an official capacity. There are two types, sovereign and official immunity. It's legislation created and approved by the General Assembly, but the Legislature also forced cities and counties to purchase insurance to cover any type of incident. In the Wilcox case the county's insurance provider paid 250-thousand dollars for the wrongful death claim.

"They made cities and counties buy insurance up to a certain amount over a period of years and now generally cities and counties are insured for motor vehicle accidents," said Coleman.

It gives officers who are out on the road daily, responding to calls, some peace of mind to do their jobs, without the threat of a lawsuit.

"It's always in the back of your mind that there's the potential for some type of civil action or litigation, but we can't let that dictate what we do, we have to go out and perform," said Dougherty Count Police Chief Don Cheek.

There are exceptions to the law if employees deviate from official duties. Officers say they have to be able to perform their day to day functions, and unfortunately accidents happen, but that's why the law exists.

Attorneys say the Georgia Court of Appeals has been whittling away at official immunity with recent rulings.

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