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Released Opinions

October 17, 2011

This morning, the Supreme Court of Georgia released opinions in 16 cases, two of which are civil within the scope of our coverage. Brief summaries of the cases and the opinions are below.

S10G1902. Godfrey et al. v. Georgia Interlocal Risk Management Agency

This case began with an automobile accident and the primary legal issue focuses on Georgia’s uninsured motorist laws.  All motor vehicle insurance must include uninsured motorist coverage that includes underinsured coverage.  Godfrey was injured in an accident by a driver who carried only $25,000 of motor vehicle liability insurance.  Godfrey was covered by a risk pool for municipalities, called the Georgia Interlocal Risk Management agency (GIRMA).  GIRMA is a self-insurance program by a group of municipalities, but does not provide underinsured coverage.  Godfrey notified GIRMA of a potential claim under the uninsured coverage and GIRMA filed a declaratory judgment action to determine whether it was required to provide coverage.  The trial court found that GIRMA was the substantial equivalent of an insurer and was required to allow the officer to select coverage up to its limits of liability.  GIRMA appealed.

The Court of Appeals (Adams, Smith, Mikell) unanimously reversed the trial court’s ruling, finding that sovereign immunity is only waived by a municipality up to the amount of coverage provided.  The court found that the General Assembly did not include the uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage in the legislation, so sovereign immunity bars Godfrey’s claims.

Godfrey petitioned for certiorari (reader Charles Cork represents Godfrey and notified us about the grant), and GIRMA responded in opposition to the petition.

On January 13, 2011, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in a 4-3 vote (Thompson, Hines, Melton dissenting) to consider the following issue:

  1. Whether a municipality’s motor vehicle liability coverage through an interlocal risk management agency must comply with the requirements for uninsured motorist coverage applicable to commercial and private self insured plans?

Godfrey filed his principal brief and GIRMA responded.

The Court heard oral argument on April 4, 2011.

On October 17, 2011, the Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals in a 4-3 vote (Hunstein, Carley, Benham, dissenting). Writing for the majority, Justice Hines explained that sovereign immunity is waived only to the extent of the liability coverage purchased. The statute specifically does not treat GIRMA as an insurer, and the agreement by its express terms did not include underinsured motorist protection. Writing in dissent, Chief Justice Hunstein would have found that GIRMA was governed by the statutory requirements for commercial and private self-insurance plans.

S11G0556. CSX Transportation, Inc. v. Smith

This case originated with a workplace injury in Ohio (because CSX maintains its registered office in Gwinnett County, venue for a state court Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA) case was appropriate in Georgia). Larry Smith was a conductor for CSX was walking down stairs to a safety meeting. His foot slipped on a stair tread in a puddle of soap and he injured his knee, requiring surgery a year later. Smith sued pursuant to FELA, which is a federal tort remedy for workplace injuries of railroad employees. After a trial, the jury found in favor of CSX and Smith appealed.

The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court in a 4-3 decision (Ellington, Miller, Phipps concurring; Barnes, concurring specially; Andrews, Johnson, and Doyle dissenting). The majority found the trial court did not abuse its discretion in admitting testimony for the impeachment of Smith, but did find that the trial court failed to instruct the jury on an Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulation about the slip-resistance of stairs. Judge Barnes concurred specially, agreeing with the majority on the jury instruction issue, but not on the impeachment issue. The dissent agreed with the majority on the impeachment question, but would have found there was no evidence that CSX was cited for a violation of the particular OSHA regulation cited by Smith.

CSX petitioned for a writ of certiorari and Smith responded.

On April 26, 2011, the Supreme Court granted the petition for certiorari in a 5-2 vote (Hunstein and Benham dissenting) to consider the following issues:

  1. Whether the Court of Appeals correctly held that the trial court erred by failing to give Smith’s requested charge on 29 CFR § 1910.24?
  2. Whether the Court of Appeals correctly held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in permitting CSX Transportation to impeach Smith regarding whether he had been taken “out of service” before he slipped on the stairs?

CSX filed its principal brief and Smith responded. CSX also filed a supplemental brief.

The case was heard at oral argument on September 12, 2011.

On October 17, 2011, the Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals in a 6-1 decision. Writing for the majority, Justice Carley explained that the OSHA regulations applied to railroad office buildings and that the jury charge regarding the regulation should have been given. The majority further explained that CSX was properly allowed to impeach Smith regarding being “out of service” because he raised the issue in his testimony. Writing in dissent, Justice Melton would have found that the OSHA regulation did not apply to the stairs at issue in the case.

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