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In 2015, Christopher Simon Attorney at Law opened a Jonesboro office, just down the street from Southern Regional Hospital to better serve our Jonesboro and Riverdale customers. We have tried cases in Clayton County State Court many times over the years and it just made sense to give our South Side customers easy access.
217 Arrowhead Blvd Suite A2 Unit 91
Jonesboro, GA 30236 (678) 648-5490
There was a substantial $3.5 million dollar verdict in Clayton County State Court in wrongful death medical malpractice case against South Atlanta Neurosurgery and the patient’s surgeon. The patient developed pneumonia after a cervical laminotomy and sued claiming the doctor’s office did not return their calls about the patient showing signs of an infection after the procedure. The patient never got a call back from the physician and died a short while later. The jury sided with the plaintiff.
In September 2017, some of our good friends took a car wreck case to trial in Clayton with a 28-year-old female plaintiff who incurred $31,000 in medical bills when she was struck as a passenger by another car. The case illustrates the proposition that when the medical care is artificially inflated in price, the jury will sense that.
In this case, the jury only awarded $7,242 despite the bills being over $30,000 because they simply did not believe they were reasonable. Lawyers cannot just assume because it is Clayton County that the jury will side with the plaintiff.
In a recent decision, Clayton County. v. Segrest, the Georgia Court of Appeals examined an interesting—although not uncommon— issue: when is a county liable for a law enforcement officer’s “negligence” in a high-speed pursuit? Specifically, the Court of Appeals was tasked with the heavy responsibility of determining whether Clayton County was liable for the death of a motorcyclist who was hit by a police patrol vehicle engaged in the pursuit of a third party.
The chase at the center of this case occurred in August 2008. The driver who was ultimately pursued was driving south along I-75 when a patrol car parked on the side of the interstate pulled out and began to follow him. The officer driving the patrol vehicle testified that he saw the driver speeding, changing lanes, and cutting off another vehicle. The driver averred through an affidavit that he did not engage in any reckless driving. After some time, the driver exited I-75. The officer, who at this point decided to turn on his signals, was still in pursuit. Instead of stopping, the driver said he began to flee because he believed the officer was stopping him in order to arrest him for failing to appear in court for proceedings associated with an earlier traffic violation. By the time the officer turned on his signals, the cars were on State Road 54, which has a speed limit of 45 miles per hour. The cars were traveling at upwards of 110 miles per hour and passing through red lights and intersections. During this chase, the officer struck a motorcycle being driven by the husband of the plaintiff in this case, who brought the suit in her capacity as the representative of her husband’s estate. The motorcyclist died as a result of the injuries caused by the collision. The officer testified that he would not have driven at those speeds but for being engaged in the pursuit of the driver, who he believed was driving recklessly and was possibly under the influence. The County moved for summary judgment and to exclude expert testimony provided by the plaintiff in support of her case. The trial court denied both motions.
The Court of Appeals first addressed whether the expert testimony proffered by the plaintiff should have been excluded. The County argued that the expert testimony should be excluded because the experts’ testimonies were based on their own unsupported beliefs and not the product of reliable principles and methods. The Court of Appeals disagreed.
The plaintiff proffered testimony from two separate experts. The first was a professor of criminology who had engaged in substantial research regarding police pursuits, and the second had over 30 years of law enforcement experience, including experience with police chases and policies regulating those pursuits. This testimony was provided to elucidate proper law enforcement procedures in the area of police pursuits. Here, the Court of Appeals concluded that the testimony was proper because the experts based their opinions on their study of or experience with the specific law enforcement practices and procedures at issue, and not on unfounded beliefs disconnected from a reliable basis.
Furthermore, the Court of Appeals also found that adherence to police practices in pursuit was a proper subject for expert testimony and not readily ascertainable to a jury without expert guidance. The Court noted that both experts had specialized experience with pursuits, and an average juror would not have personal experience with high-speed chases or police practices associated with those pursuits. Since they could draw conclusions from the evidence that an average juror could not, the expert testimony would be useful.
Although it affirmed the trial court’s admission of the evidence to a great degree, the Court of Appeals did limit one aspect of the expert testimony. An expert is generally not permitted to testify as to the legal conclusions that can be drawn from the conduct about which he or she is testifying. See, e.g., Montgomery v. Aetna Cas. & Surety Co., 898 F.2d 1537, 1541 (11th Cir. 1990). Here, both experts’ testimonies inappropriately incorporated words and phrases associated with legal conclusions (for example, “reckless disregard”) in describing the conduct of the police officer. Insofar as such language indicates a legal conclusion rather than an examination of the conduct, the testimony was inappropriate and should have been excluded.
Next, the Court of Appeals concurred that summary judgment should not be granted and affirmed the trial court’s denial of the motion. In pertinent part, O.C.G.A. § 40-6-6 (d)(2) provides: “the law enforcement officer’s pursuit shall not be the proximate cause . . . of the damage, injury, or death caused by the fleeing suspect unless the law enforcement officer acted with reckless disregard for proper law enforcement procedures.”The law does not define “proper law enforcement procedures,” and the Court of Appeals has found that the phrase could reasonably encompass “the procedures . . . a reasonable law enforcement agency would adopt, . . . most law enforcement agencies have adopted, or . . . that the agency employing the pursuing officer in a particular case has adopted.” Strength v. Lovett, 311 Ga. App. 35, 41 (2)(a) (2011). The Court of Appeal, however, again declined to resolve this important issue because the evidence showed, as it did in Lovett, that standard procedures for law enforcement agencies generally and the standards of the particular agency that employed the officer involved in the pursuit in dispute both required that the officer “balance the need to immediately apprehend a fleeing suspect against the risk to the officer and the public of initiating or continuing a pursuit.” Id.
To qualify under the “conscious disregard” standard, the officer’s conduct must have shown conscious indifference to the consequences of an act. The Court of Appeals found that there was sufficient evidence in the record from which a reasonable jury could conclude the officer showed this conscious disregard. Although the Court noted that it was proper for the officer to initiate a chase of a person driving recklessly, it noted that agency procedure nonetheless required that the officer cease giving chase when the continuation of the pursuit creates a risk to third parties that is unreasonable under the circumstances. Here, the Court noted in particular that the officer was pursuing the subject at over 100 miles per hour on a roadway with a speed limit of 45 while traveling through red lights and intersections, and the officer testified that he did not consider whether circumstances suggested he cease pursuit at the time. Accordingly, the Court found that the trial court properly denied summary judgment on the wrongful death claim, leaving a jury to decide whether the officer showed conscious disregard.
We all depend on law enforcement officers to ensure our safety and understand that safeguarding our streets will occasion the need for high-speed pursuits. Nevertheless, an officer’s actions must on occasion give way to the safety of third parties. Fortunately, for the plaintiff in this case, her claims will not be subverted short of trial and will be heard by a jury of her peers. However, many claims never make it to the jury. Indeed, actions against governmental actors are among the most difficult to win, considering the various procedural requirements, immunity doctrines, and public policy interests at play. Meritorious claims, however, do exist, and if you believe you’re someone who has been injured as a result of actionable governmental negligence, you should make sure to find experienced counsel prepared to properly assess the merits of your claim and guide you through the legal obstacles you will likely face. The car accident attorneys at Christopher Simon Attorney at Law have represented numerous injured Georgians and are ready to provide you with the benefits of their knowledgeable counsel. If you have a possible claim and are interested in learning more about the legal options you might have, feel free to contact us to arrange a free case consultation.