ATLANTA — In a unanimous decision released Monday, the Georgia Supreme Court has ruled that two former Dougherty County police officers are immune from any civil lawsuit stemming from a car crash that claimed the life of a civilian near Savannah in 2007.
At question was the constitutionality of a state law that grants law enforcers with civil immunity for crashes that happen while the officers are in the course of their official duties.
“We are pleased that it came out the way that it did,” DCPD Chief Don Cheek said of the ruling Monday. “As long as officers are functioning within the guidelines, it is hard enough to do what we do without thinking: ‘Who’s going to second guess us?’”
While on their way to participate in Operation Rolling Thunder — an exercise to help curtail Savannah’s high number of traffic fatalities — Dougherty County police officers Jeremiah Fenn and O.D. Gilliam were involved in a car crash that claimed the life of Milton Wilcox.
The Wilcox family sued, saying that the officers were liable for the crash because of negligence. The family also sued challenging the constitutionality of Official Code of Georgia (O.C.G.A.) 36-92-3, which says that any local government employee who commits a “tort,” or wrongdoing, “involving the use of a covered motor vehicle while in the performance of his or her official duties is not subject to lawsuit or liability therefore.”
The court unanimously disagreed with the Wilcox family’s assertion and, in the opinion written by Justice Robert Benham, said that “simply because the Legislature chose not to extend immunity to counties and their employees in the [Georgia Tort Claims Act] does not mean that it could not do so elsewhere.”
“It is evident, then, that the Legislature had constitutional authority to enact (O.C.G.A.) 36-92-3,” Monday’s opinion says. “Therefore, we find that the trial court properly denied Wilcox’s claim that (O.C.G.A.) 36-92-3 is unconstitutional and properly granted summary judgment in favor of Fenn and Gilliam.”
Neither officer is currently with the department, but not because of the 2007 incident, Cheek said. Fenn is working with the police department aboard Marine Corps Logistics Base-Albany, and Gilliam has since left law enforcement all together.