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Next Week at the Court

April 12, 2013

On Monday, April 15, 2013, the Supreme Court will hear its final day of oral argument for the month of April. Summaries of the cases and issues being argued are below.

Monday, April 15, 2013 10:00 am Sitting

S12G2031. NORFOLK SOUTHERN RAILWAY COMPANY v. ZEAGLER

This case began when a logging truck pulled onto train tracks in front of an approaching train. Zeagler was the conductor of that train and despite hitting the emergency brake, was unable to avoid the collision. In the crash, Zeagler panicked and decided to jump off of the locomotive, but in the process fell and tripped over his brakeman, hitting his back on the brakeman’s suitcase and bouncing up and down on his tailbone before the train finally stopped. Zeagler sued Norfolk Southern under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA), which requires proof of the elements of common law negligence. After discovery, Norfolk Southern moved for summary judgment and the trial court granted its motion. Zeagler appealed.

The Court of Appeals (Mikell, Ellington, Miller) unanimously reversed the trial court’s decision, determining that a duty was owed by Norfolk Southern to protect Zeagler from crossing collisions, or at least take action to reduce the physical injuries from those collisions. Norfolk Southern did not engage in any training program about how to handle crossing collisions. The Court of Appeals then reviewed the causation issues and determined a jury question existed on whether Norfolk Southern breached that duty. The Court of Appeals specifically did not address whether Zeagler’s failure to train claim was preempted in any way by the Federal Railroad Safety Act or the Federal Railroad Administration training regulations because of the state of the record and briefing on appeal.

On January 22, 2013, the Supreme Court granted the petition for certiorari in a 5-1 vote (Benham dissenting; Blackwell disqualified) to consider the following question:

  1. Whether the Court of Appeals erred by reversing the order granting summary judgment in favor of Norfolk Southern Railway Company.
  2. Whether Zeagler’s failure to train claim is preempted or precluded by Federal Railroad Administration training regulations.

The case will be heard on April 15, 2013.

S12G2030. ROPER v. GREENWAY

This case began when the Forsyth County Animal Shelter euthanized two dogs owned by Greenway. Greenway, who is totally disabled, was transported to the hospital in 2007. When he left his house, his neighbor apparently stated he would take care of Greenway’s two dogs and later called the pound to try to ensure the dogs would be taken care of. When Greenway arrived at the hospital emergency room, he was extremely disoriented and lacking his glasses but ultimately signed a form given to him by sheriff’s deputies. He testified that he believed the form stated that, if he died, his dogs would be go to the Humane Society. The form was actually a release to send the dogs to the animal shelter where they could be euthanized at the discretion of the officials there. When Greenway woke up later in a regular hospital room several days later, he asked the nurse about getting his dogs back. She looked into the issue and informed him that the dogs have already been euthanized.

Greenway sued the hospital, the sheriff’s office, the deputy who gave him the form, and the corporation that operates the animal shelter. The defendants moved for summary judgment, and the trial court granted summary judgment to the hospital because of the lack of assertion of negligence against it, granted summary judgment to the sheriff and the deputy based on their immunity for discretionary acts, and to the organization operating the shelter.

The Court of Appeals (Boggs and Doyle, with Andrews concurring in the judgment only) affirmed in part and reversed in part. Official immunity protects public officers from liability for their discretionary acts, but not from ministerial acts that were negligently performed. The Court of Appeals found that there was an issue of fact regarding whether the manner and circumstances in which the deputy gave the form to Greenway breached a ministerial duty. That issue of fact prevents summary judgment from being granted to the deputy. The Court of Appeals also found that summary judgment was improperly granted to the hospital because there remained issues of fact as to whether the hospital voluntarily undertook a duty to help Greenway with the safety of his dogs and to provide advice to him about the effect of the release he signed. The Court of Appeals also found that summary judgment was improperly granted to NALAA because issues of fact remain regarding Greenway’s claims of promissory estoppel.

On January 7, 2013, the Supreme Court unanimously granted the petition for certiorari to consider the following issue:

  1. Whether the Court of Appeals erred in finding the existence of a ministerial duty.

The case will be heard on April 15, 2013.

Monday, April 15, 2013 2:00 pm Sitting

S12G2003. MANDT v. LOVELL

This case involves the ability of a court to modify its prior judgments. In 2008, the trial court converted a temporary family violence protective order against Lovell into a permanent protective order (PPO). Two years later, Lovell sought to terminate the PPO before the same court. In 2011, the trial court held a hearing and granted the motion to terminate the PPO. Mandt appealed, arguing that the trial court was barred from terminating the PPO by res judicata, because it lacked jurisdiction, and because the attempt to terminate the PPO failed to state a claim on which relief can be granted.

The Court of Appeals (Mikell, Miller, Blackwell) unanimously affirmed the trial court’s decision, finding that the trial court may modify its prior orders. The Court of Appeals further found that a judgment that govern continuing or recurring courses of conduct may be modified.

On January 7, 2013, the Supreme Court unanimously granted the petition for certiorari (Blackwell disqualified) to consider the following issue:

  1. Under what circumstances, if any, may a trial court terminate a permanent protective order entered pursuant to OCGA § 19-13-4?

The case will be heard on April 15, 2013.

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