Woman may proceed with suit against Peach schools, high court rules

bpurser@macon.comMarch 10, 2014 

The Georgia Supreme Court has ruled that a woman who fell on Peach County school property and broke her ankle may proceed with her lawsuit.

In the ruling released Monday, Justice Harold Melton wrote that the Georgia Court of Appeals was wrong to uphold a Peach County court ruling dismissing the suit on grounds that the school officials were protected by official immunity.

Although school officials may ultimately prevail, the Supreme Court found that it’s too early in the legal process to reach that conclusion, according to a summary of the case provided by the court’s public information office.

Donna Austin sued the Peach County school system and several school officials after she fell when she stepped off a sidewalk near the gym May 21, 2010, following a Peach County High School graduation.

Her leg was caught in an “opening of the curb.” She filed suit, contending that school officials had a responsibility to keep the property in a safe condition. But school officials argued protection under the doctrine of official immunity.

“Immunity protects public officials from personal liability for discretionary actions taken within the scope of their jobs as long as they are not done with malice,” the summary stated.

But “public employees are not immune from liability if they are negligent in performing ministerial actions and cause injuries or damage.” Austin contends that keeping the property safe was a ministerial action.

In concurring with the ruling, Justice David Nahmias wrote that he agreed with the opinion, but he urged trial courts to take action to help cut down legal costs.

While it is “conceivable” that a laundry list of policies could come to light during discovery, it is “very unlikely,” Nahmias noted in the summary. Discovery is the pretrial process in which the parties share documents and information about their case.

“As a result, this case is almost certain to end with summary judgment for the defendants based on official immunity ... if the case is litigated that far,” Nahmias noted. “As the defendants point out, however, if this case proceeds to full discovery, including medical experts on the issue of Austin’s damages, the litigation expenses would likely make it economically rational for the defendants to pay a significant sum to settle with Austin, notwithstanding their strong likelihood of ultimately prevailing in the case due to official immunity.”

To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.

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