ATLANTA (CN) - Atlanta is not liable for damages resulting from its alleged failure to provide medical care to a diabetic inmate, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled.
In reviewing the city's appeal from a 2013 ruling that advanced a negligence lawsuit against it, the court found that sovereign immunity shields the city from liability stemming from inmates' medical care.
Barto Mitcham sued Atlanta and Police Chief George Turner in Fulton County State Court, alleging that he suffered injuries due to their failure to provide him with adequate medical treatment while in their custody.
Mitcham was arrested in October 2010 and charged with "hit and run." While in the custody of the Atlanta Police Department, he became ill and was taken to Grady Memorial Hospital where he was treated for low blood sugar associated with diabetes, which caused a serious condition called diabetic ketoacidosis, according to the lawsuit.
After monitoring Mitcham for two days, the hospital released him back into the police department's custody. Medical staff allegedly told the city and police department that they needed to monitor Mitcham's blood-sugar levels and provide him with insulin on a regular schedule.
The city and department's failure to do so caused Mitcham to become ill again, he claimed in the lawsuit.
The trial court refused to dismiss Mitcham's claims, finding that the city's provision of medical care to inmates was a ministerial act not shielded by sovereign immunity.
The city appealed after the Georgia Court of Appeals affirmed that decision in November 2013.
Under Georgia law, municipal corporations and their officials cannot be liable for damages resulting from the exercise of legislative or judicial functions, which are intended to benefit the public. They can, however, be held liable for improper performance of their ministerial duties, which are performed for the benefit of a municipal corporation or its citizens, as opposed to the general public interest.
Georgia's top court agreed last week that categorizing city functions for the purpose of sovereign immunity may be challenging.
"Our courts, however, have had no difficulty concluding that the operation of a jail and the care and treatment of individuals in police custody are purely governmental functions related to the governmental duty to ensure public safety and maintain order for the benefit of all citizens," Chief Justice Hugh Thompson wrote for the court on Feb. 16.
Cities, therefore, cannot be liable for damages resulting from failure to provide medical care to inmates regardless of whether they were negligent, the 15-page opinion states.
Plaintiffs in those cases, however, may pursue remedies for civil rights violations under federal statutes, Thompson noted.
In reaching its decision, the court of appeals incorrectly interchanged a city's sovereign immunity as applied to its governmental functions with the type of immunity that shields government officials or employees performing certain official functions, the top court concluded.
"This immunity case is especially helpful for our public safety officials," Cathy Hampton, an Atlanta city attorney, said in a press release. "Affirming the city's sovereign immunity could potentially save taxpayers millions of dollars in the future."
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