Under Georgia Code § 36-11-1, a claim against a county government must be presented within 12 months after it accrues or becomes payable. Otherwise, the claim is barred, and the plaintiff has no further recourse.
It seems like a simple enough idea, but the issue can be more complex than it initially appears. The parties in a recent case had a strong difference of opinion as to whether a particular claim was "presented" within the meaning of the statute.
Facts of the Case
In a case recently under consideration by the Supreme Court of Georgia, the plaintiff was a man who was allegedly hurt while riding a bus owned by the defendant county in January 2012. The plaintiff's attorney sent a letter to the "county attorney" in June 2012, asking that he accept the letter as a presentment of the plaintiff's claim against the county.
In January 2014, the plaintiff filed a formal lawsuit against the county, seeking compensation for injuries resulting from the bus accident. After the plaintiff's death, his daughter was substituted as the plaintiff. Thereafter, the defendant moved for summary judgment on the basis that the original plaintiff had never properly presented his claim. As grounds, the defendant averred that the person to whom the plaintiff's claim was sent was not employed by the county "in house" but instead was an attorney engaged in the private practice of law while also under appointment as the county attorney.
The trial court granted the defendant's motion. After the intermediate court of appeals affirmed, the plaintiff sought review from the state's highest court.
Decision of the Supreme Court of Georgia
The court of appeals reversed the trial court's decision. The court first noted that, while Georgia law has long contained a requirement for the presentment of a claim against a county government like the defendant herein, the statute "does not say exactly how" a plaintiff is supposed to present his or her claim - only that a claim against a county must be presented within 12 months.
According to the court, the presentment does not necessarily have to be laid directly into the hands of a member of the governing authority. Instead, it may sometimes be submitted by delivery to a subordinate officer of the county government. As the legal representative of the county, the county attorney was an officer to whom a presentment may be delivered. The court was careful to note that "county attorney" means only the regular and duly appointed county attorney, rather than "any lawyer doing work for a county." Even though the attorney in question in the current case was an "outside county attorney," the plaintiff's presentment of the claim to him was sufficient.
(In so holding, the court expressly declined to consider whether the content of the letter contained adequate detail to present the plaintiff's claim, stating that this issue was to be resolved by the trial court.)
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