Collington v. Clayton County, et al.

Georgia Supreme Court Rules Sending Presentment Notice to the County Sufficient for Claims Against the Sheriff

 

Facts

O.C.G.A. § 36-11-1 provides:  “All claims against counties must be presented within 12 months after they accrue or become payable or the same are barred, provided that minors or other persons laboring under disabilities shall be allowed 12 months after the removal of the disability to present their claims.” (Emphasis added.) This statute has been referred to as a presentment requirement, rather than an ante litem requirement because the lawsuit can be sufficient first notice if filed and served on the proper parties within 12 months. See, e.g., Morney v. Kiker, 367 Ga. App. 194 (2023); Burton v. DeKalb County, 202 Ga. App. 676 (1992).

In Collington v. Clayton County, et al., 2024 WL 171413 (Ga. 2024), the Georgia Supreme Court addressed the question of whether this statute applies to claims involving a sheriff and, if so, where does this notice need to be sent? 

Georgia Law on Claims Against Sheriffs

The law involving claims against a sheriff is one of the most confusing, and illogical, areas of law in Georgia. Georgia courts have held that the sheriff equals the County for purposes of sovereign immunity and sending presentment notices under O.C.G.A. § 36-11-1, but those same courts have held that the sheriff does not equal the county in terms of deciding who to sue. For claims arising out of the negligence of a sheriff or their deputies, the Georgia Supreme Court has held that the proper defendant is the sheriff, in his official capacity, not the county. See Gilbert v. Richardson, 264 Ga. 744 (1994).

In 2019, the Georgia Court of Appeals held in Moats v. Mendez, 349 Ga. App. 811 (2019) that (1) O.C.G.A. § 36-11-1 requires that a notice be sent for claims involving a sheriff or a deputy; and (2) that notice has to be sent to the sheriff. The Court in Moats held that a notice sent to the county was not sufficient. 

This, of course, raised a number of questions. If the sheriff equals the county, such that a notice under § 36-11-1 is required in the first place, then why isn’t notice to the county sufficient? And if the sheriff is a separate and distinct official from the county, then why does § 36-11-1 even apply in the first place when it refers only to “claims against counties.”

Collington Addresses § 36-11-1’s Applicability to Claims Involving Sheriffs

In Collington, the Georgia Supreme Court finally addressed this confusing area of law and clarified that a notice is required under § 36-11-1 for claims against a sheriff, but the notice can be sent to the county. Collington arose out of an August 2018 car wreck involving a Clayton County Sheriff’s Deputy and the Plaintiff, Mary Collington. Collington’s lawyers sent a notice pursuant to § 36-11-1, but it was not sent to the Clayton County Sheriff. Instead, it was sent to the Clayton County Commissioners, the District Attorney of Clayton County, and the Clayton County Chief of Police.

Collington first filed suit in October 2019 against Clayton County, but she voluntarily dismissed the lawsuit in December 2020. Shortly thereafter, Collington filed a renewal action against the Deputy, Clayton County, and the Sheriff, in his official capacity. The Defendant subsequently moved to dismiss the Complaint on several grounds, including that Collington’s claims against the Sheriff were barred because she presented her claims to Clayton County and its governing authority, not to the Sheriff.

The trial court granted the Defendants’ motion to dismiss, and Colllington appealed to the Court of Appeals. The Georgia Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the claims against the Clayton County Sheriff because Collington sent her notice to the County instead of the Sheriff. Collington filed a petition for a writ of certiorari to the Georgia Supreme Court, which was granted.

Issues & Holdings

The issues before Georgia Supreme Court were two-fold: 

  1. Does O.C.G.A. § 36-11-1 apply to official capacity claims against a county sheriff for the negligent use of a covered motor vehicle?
  2. Does the proper presentment of such claims to the county commission satisfy the claimant’s duty under the statute? 2024 WL 171413 at *1.

Georgia Supreme Court Holds That § 36-11-1 Applies to Claims Against Sheriffs

Turning to the first issue, the Supreme Court held that this statute applies to official capacity claims against a county sheriff. Id. at *3. The Court reasoned that official capacity claims are claims against the county itself. The Court reached its decision by looking at the history of the presentment statute, which was enacted in 1860, and the history of claims involving counties and county officials. The Court noted that claims against government officers and employees are claims against the government entity itself. Id. at *3-*6.

Under the Georgia Constitution, “[s]heriffs are county officials.” Id. at *6. Furthermore, the statutory scheme for claims arising out of the negligent use of a covered motor vehicle by a “local government entity or officer” states that a sheriff, deputy sheriff, or other employee of a sheriff’s office is a local government officer or employee. Id.; see O.C.G.A. § 36-92-1(4)(B). And those statutes state that “local government entities,” including counties, are liable for the negligence of its officers or employees. 2024 WL 171413 at *6. The Court also noted that counties, not sheriffs, are the ones who provide insurance, pay claims, and own the vehicles that sheriff’s deputies drive. Id. Accordingly, the claim against the Clayton County Sheriff was a suit against the County. Therefore, O.C.G.A. § 36-11-1 applied and presentment was required.

A Notice Under § 36-11-1 for a Claim Against a Sheriff Can Be Sent to the County

After concluding that the notice was required, the Georgia Supreme Court next addressed where it needed to be sent. The Court observed that the statute itself does not state “to whom presentment must be made.” 2024 WL 171413 at *6. However, Georgia courts had consistently held that a presentment to the county governing authority was sufficient to comply with the statute. Id.

The Supreme Court easily answered this question in stating:  “Because a claim against a sheriff in his official capacity for the negligent use of a covered motor vehicle is a claim against a county under O.C.G.A. § 36-11-1, presentment to the county governing authority of a claim to which O.C.G.A. § 36-11-1 applies satisfies the statutes presentment requirement.” Id.

Reasoning

The holding from Collington is the most notable part of this decision because the case makes it clear that a claim arising out of the negligence of a sheriff or their deputies requires a notice under O.C.G.A. § 36-11-1, and that the notice can be sent to the county governing authority. This helps clear up significant confusion about where to send a notice.

But some other questions remain unanswered.

Impact and Implications of the Collington Decision

First, the Court dropped a footnote and stated it was not deciding whether a notice sent to the sheriff would satisfy the presentment requirement of O.C.G.A. § 36-11-1. 2024 WL 171413 at *6 n.11. And second, related to that point, the Court stated that a notice to the Clayton County governing authority was sufficient, but it did not state that was the only place it could be sent. In short, the Court left open the question of where else a notice could be sent to satisfy the statute’s requirements.

Prior decisions do provide some potential answers to these questions. In Croy v. Whitfield County, 301 Ga. 380 (2017), the Georgia Supreme Court held that notice to a county attorney—whether in-house counsel or outside counsel—was sufficient. In Croy, the Supreme Court noted that other appellate decisions had approved of sending a notice of a claim against a county to “departments or officers of county governments, other than the governing authority itself.” Id. at 383. The Supreme Court concluded the notice required under § 36-11-1 “does not always and inevitably require that the presentment be directly laid in the hands of the members of the governing authority. The presentment sometimes may be submitted to the governing authority by delivering it to subordinate officers of the county government.” Id. at 384.

While the notice in Collington was approved because it was sent to Clayton County’s governing authority—the Board of Commissioners—the Court did not expressly state or imply that this was the place it had to be sent. Based on Croy and other decisions, it is almost certain that future courts would approve of sending the notice to the sheriff, or to other “subordinate officers” of the county.

Another question that was not answered in Collington is whether the county itself, as opposed to the sheriff in their official capacity, is a proper defendant. Based on the reasoning and multiple statements in this decision, it is reasonable to conclude that suing the county would be proper. A claim against a government official, such as the sheriff, is a claim against the entity itself. The Supreme Court expressly stated in Collington that claims against a county sheriff in their official capacity “are claims against the county itself.” 2024 WL 171413 at *6.

Conclusion

Given the unanswered questions in Collington, the most prudent approach when handling a claim involving the negligence of a sheriff’s deputy or other employee of the sheriff would be to send the notice to both the sheriff and the county. 

When sending it to the county, send it to the county manager, the county attorney, and the board of commissioners. When filing suit, sue both the sheriff in his/her official capacity and the county itself. 

If you follow these steps, you should be protected from any baseless arguments about whether your notice was sufficient or whether you sued the proper parties. 

Learn more about The Champion Firm and the personal injury practice areas we cover here. If you’re an attorney seeking to refer a case or partner with us as co-counsel, learn more here.

Citation: Collington v. Clayton County, et al., No. S22G1146
(S. Ct. Ga. January 17, 2024)

About the Author

Darl Champion is an award-winning personal injury lawyer serving the greater Metro Atlanta area. He is passionate about ensuring his clients are fully compensated when they are harmed by someone’s negligence. Learn more about Darl here.