CAN A SHERIFF OR HIS EMPLOYEE BE SUED UNDER THE GEORGIA TORT CLAIMS ACT FOR A CAR ACCIDENT?
A sheriff or his employee may be sued for a car accident, but they cannot be sued under the Georgia Tort Claims Act as a state actor.
Instead, under the plain language of the Georgia Constitution and the GTCA, sheriffs are county officials, not state officers or employees. The Georgia Constitution specifically states that sheriffs are “county officers” who are elected by the voters of their respective counties, not through a statewide vote. Ga. Const. of 1983, Art. IX, Sec. I, Par. III(a). Further, the GTCA’s definition of “State” specifically excludes counties and “other units of local government.” OCGA § 50–21–22(5). It follows that the GTCA’s definition of “State officer or employee” excludes county officers and employees, and “State government entity” excludes county agencies and departments. OCGA § 50–21–22(6), (7).
Moreover, since issuing our decision in Brown, this Court has decided Freeman v. Barnes, 282 Ga.App. 895, 640 S.E.2d 611 (2006), in which it considered whether the Fulton County sheriff was both a state and county employee for the purposes of the Workers’ Compensation Act, OCGA § 34–9–1 et seq. In Freeman, this Court distinguished Brown and found that the sheriff was a county officer under the Act, because sheriffs are defined as county officers in the Georgia Constitution, county officers are paid solely and exclusively from county treasuries, and each county commission funds its respective sheriff’s department. Id. at 899–900(2), 640 S.E.2d 611. Similarly, in this case, it is undisputed that Pickens County paid the salaries of the sheriff and his employees, provided their health insurance and retirement benefits, and funded the sheriff’s department.
Accordingly, based upon the Georgia Constitution, the GTCA, and Freeman, we conclude that Sheriff Wofford is a county official, that neither the sheriff nor his employees are “[s]tate officer[s] or employee[s]” under the GTCA, and that the sheriff’s department is not a “state government entity” under the GTCA. Therefore, the appellants are not entitled to summary judgment on the basis that Prather failed to comply with the notice provisions of the GTCA.
Nichols v. Prather, 286 Ga. App. 889, 892–93, 650 S.E.2d 380, 384–85 (2007).
This holding is significant because the potential recovery under the Georgia State Claims Act versus the local government’s liability insurance can be substantial. Under the Georgia Tort Claims Act, the State may be liable up to $1,000,000.00. In contrast, most local governments only carry $500,000.00 in liability insurance for an occurrence that is covered.
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