The Court of Appeals of Georgia, Georgia’s intermediate appellate court, affirmed the trial court’s refusal to dismiss a medical malpractice lawsuit filed by an inmate who alleged that he suffered severe and permanent injuries as a result of the Atlanta jail system’s failure to provide him with timely and appropriate medical care. Atlanta and its chief of police had moved to dismiss the inmate’s claim, alleging that they were entitled to sovereign immunity because they were engaged in the performance of a governmental function at the time the inmate allegedly suffered his injuries.
The Underlying Facts
The inmate was in the custody of the Atlanta Police Department in October 2010 after being arrested for hit and run. While in custody, the inmate became ill due to his low blood sugar associated with his diabetes and he was taken to a hospital. The hospital instructed Atlanta officials at the time of the inmate’s discharge from the hospital regarding the need to monitor the inmate’s blood sugar levels and instructed the officials to provide him with insulin on a regular schedule. The man’s medical malpractice lawsuit against the City of Atlanta and its chief of police alleged that he became ill and suffered permanent injuries because Atlanta and its officials negligently failed to monitor and properly regulate his insulin levels as instructed.
The defendants moved to dismiss the medical malpractice lawsuit for failure to state a claim, pursuant to OCGA § 36-33-1 (b), arguing that they were entitled to sovereign immunity because they were engaged in the performance of a governmental function at the time the plaintiff allegedly suffered his injuries. (OCGA § 36-33-1 (b) provides: “Municipal corporations shall not be liable for failure to perform or for errors in performing their legislative or judicial powers. For neglect to perform or improper or unskillful performance of their ministerial duties, they shall be liable.”)
Ministerial vs. Governmental Functions
The Court of Appeals of Georgia defined a “ministerial function” as “one that is simple, absolute, and definite, arising under conditions admitted or proved to exist, and requiring merely the execution of a specific duty” and it defined a “governmental function” as one which “involves the exercise of deliberate judgment and wide discretion” or an act “where the choice of how to do it is left with those duly vested with the power of government to make the judgment.”
The Court of Appeals of Georgia noted in its November 20, 2013 opinion that in a previous decision it had held that, “Providing adequate medical attention for inmates under defendants’ custody and control is a ministerial act by the sheriff and his or her deputies and does not involve the exercise of discretion to provide medical care, because medical care is a fundamental right and is not discretionary …; thus, such act is not subject to either sovereign immunity or official immunity.”
The Court of Appeals of Georgia therefore held in the present case that the provision of medical care to inmates in the defendants’ custody is a ministerial act, the duty is imposed by statute, and medical care is a fundamental right of inmates in custody. Accordingly, sovereign or governmental immunity is not applicable in this case.
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