Georgia Court of Appeals Determines Sheriff Not Entitled to Official Immunity as Matter of Law for Shooting Fleeing Motorcyclist
On June 17, 2016, Schantz, the Plaintiff in this case, led police officers on a high-speed chase while driving his new motorcycle on U.S. Highway 341. During the chase, Sheriff Benny Deloach fired a warning shot from his shotgun, striking the pavement and Schantz’s motorcycle. As Schantz came to a stop and held his hand in the air, Sheriff Deloach racked his shotgun a second time and prepared to fire. Schantz quickly drove away as Sheriff Deloach fired again. This time, the buckshot penetrated Shantz’s motorcycle helmet and caused fractures to Shantz’s face, jaw, and eye socket. There was evidence that this shot was fired as Schantz was driving away from the Sheriff and that there were no law enforcement officers in his path.
Schantz subsequently filed suit against the Sheriff’s Estate (the Sheriff died of unrelated reasons after this incident). Schantz asserted claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim in federal court, as well as state law claims. The federal court determined that Sheriff Deloach was entitled to immunity on the 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim and refused to exercise its pendent jurisdiction over the state law claims. Schantz then filed suit against the Estate of Sheriff Deloach in Appling County Superior Court, alleging battery, negligence, and a violation of the Georgia Constitution.
Deloach moved for summary judgment, arguing that the battery and negligence claims failed as a matter of law based on official immunity and that there was no private cause of action for the alleged violation of the Georgia Constitution. The trial court denied summary judgment, and this appeal followed.
Issues & Holdings
The Georgia Court of Appeals addressed two issues on appeal. The first was whether the trial court erred in denying the Estate the protection of official immunity. The second was whether the trial court erred in allowing the claims under the Georgia Constitution to proceed.
The Court of Appeals held that there were genuine issues of material fact on the official immunity defense, but it concluded that the trial court erred in allowing the claims under the Georgia Constitution to proceed.
1. The Negligence and Battery Claims
While it is well-settled that government officials are entitled to official immunity for official acts under their discretionary authority, that immunity does not extend to acts committed with malice or intent to injury. Here, the court considered evidence that Schantz, at the time he was shot, was fleeing—not approaching—Sheriff Deloach or other law enforcement officers. “At a minimum, the evidence is in conflict as to whether Deloach reasonably believed that the second shot was necessary to prevent either (a) death or great bodily injury to himself or (b) the commission of some other forcible felony.”
As a a result, a jury could find that Deloach’s second shot was fired with actual malice or intent to injury Schantz.
2. Claims Under The Georgia Constitution
Schantz brought claims under the Georgia Constitution alleging that Sheriff Deloach’s actions constituted an unreasonable seizure and abuse of a person being arrested. The Georgia Court of Appeals concluded that the Georgia Constitution does not authorize individuals to bring a private cause of action for violations of the Georgia Constitution as there is no state law analog to § 1983. As such, the Court of Appeals determined that the trial court erred in denying summary judgment to the Estate on the state constitutional claim.
In summary, a plaintiff who brings an action against a state officer may survive summary judgment if it shows evidence that the officer was negligent in performing a ministerial function, or that they acted with actual malice or intent to injure. In cases where a law enforcement officer argues that a use of force was justified, this case demonstrates that showing that it was not justified could allow a jury to find that it was committed with actual malice or intent to injure. As a result, in cases where a federal constitutional claim may be barred under the doctrine of qualified immunity, it may be able to proceed on a state law theory of liability.
Citation: Estate of Benny DeLoach v. Shantz, No. A23A0741 (Ga. Ct. App. September 26, 2023)
About the Author
Isiah Chavis is a dedicated personal injury lawyer at The Champion Firm. Prior to law school, Isiah served as a Lieutenant Governor for Circle K International, a collegiate branch of the Kiwanis Club. Learn more about Isiah's work here.