When a car accident happens, you often think of police and emergency services as aids in a time of need and not contributors to the accident. You may wonder what remedies are available if a paramedic or police officer, while attempting to help you, actually causes an injury or aggravates the pre-existing ones. Typically one can seek compensation for their injuries by filing a personal injury claim. However, attempting to hold government entities accountable can be challenging, but not impossible, due to the legal concept of sovereign immunity. If a government entity or agent was acting within their discretion, then the law protects them from being sued. Personal injury actions can still be successfully pursued if the alleged injury-causing act occurred outside the scope of the government’s authority, or if the government entity or agent waives sovereign immunity through their actions.
A recent Georgia Supreme Court decision, Stevenson v. City of Doraville, decided November 25, 2013, deals with the question of whether an injured motorist should have been able to pursue his personal injury action against the city based upon the police officer’s actions at the scene. The underlying facts began when the injured man’s car began to fail while he was driving on the highway in a rainstorm. He attempted to move toward the shoulder, but his car stalled halfway across. The driver noticed a police vehicle with emergency lights activated. The police officer in the cruiser noticed the stranded motorist and activated his blue flashing lights. Both parties had different accounts of where the police car was located, but the injured motorist alleged that the police car was behind his car at the four o’clock or five o’clock position which directed traffic toward his vehicle and led to his injuries. The officer alleged that he was on the side of an entrance ramp, several lanes of traffic, and a grassy median prior to the accident, and only moved the car after the accident occurred.
The police officer radioed twice to dispatch for assistance due to the location of the stranded motorist’s car and did not leave the car. The motorist waited several minutes because he believed the officer was going to help him and then decided to try to get the officer’s attention. After he left his vehicle another motorist crashed into his car which hit him and then caused a multiple-vehicle accident. The injured motorist alleged that because the officer was behind and to the right of his vehicle and chose not to get out of his car, other motorists were directed to his car and he missed an opportunity to cross the highway on foot when it was clear. The lower courts granted the city summary judgment, reasoning that the public duty doctrine did not apply or create liability for the city. Under Georgia law, the public duty doctrine imposes a extra duty on a police officer if they are protecting an individual after a special relationship exists that sets it apart from the general duty to the public. If the police failed to provide protection once the special relationship was established through inaction, then the city could be held liable for damages.