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Released Opinions

September 23, 2013

This morning, the Supreme Court of Georgia released opinions in 18 cases and will hear argument in four cases. Two of the released opinions are within the scope of our coverage and are summarized below.

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 was heard on April 15, 2013.

On September 23, 2013, the Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the Court of Appeals’ decision. In a lengthy opinion for the Court, Justice Nahmias explained that Norfolk Southern has a legal duty to use reasonable care in providing a safe workplace, including training for foreseeable hazards. The Court of Appeals reached the correct result in concluding that genuine issues of fact remain regarding breach and causation, even if the legal analysis was not exactly correct. In addition, the Court found the failure to train claim is not preempted or precluded by any other federal law or regulation.

S13A0987 Atlanta Independent School System, a/k/a Atlanta Public Schools et al. v. Atlanta Neighborhood Charter School, Inc., et al.

This case involves the proper allocation of funding to local charter schools in Georgia. When a charter school is authorized by a local school district, it receives its funding based on a formula set in statute. When Atlanta Public Schools (APS) made payments to its locally-authorized charters, it subtracted $38.6 million from its local revenues to pay for pension obligations before applying the funding formula, leading to an eight percent reduction in public funds distributed to the local charters. Several charter schools sued and the trial court agreed that the actions of APS violated the statute. APS appealed to the Supreme Court.

The case was heard on June 17, 2013.

On September 23, 2013, the Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the trial court decision. Writing for the Court, Chief Justice Thompson explained that this case is an issue of statutory interpration. For a start-up charter school, the funding formula in the statute uses a different calculation method for “local revenue” than the formula used for other schools in a local district. After that amount is calculated using this formula, the statute requires that it shall be the amount distributed to the charter school by the local board. Despite APS’ claims to the contrary, the General Assembly expressly included a different formula for use with start-up charters and the Court cannot rewrite the statute. The trial court properly granted relief to the charter schools, finding that the charters are entitled to the funds withheld by APS based on the wording of the statute.

(Disclosure: Strickland Brockington Lewis LLP filed an amicus brief in support of the appellee charter schools in this case.)

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