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Can “Aesthetic” Considerations Justify Unsafe Conditions in a Georgia State Park?


Personal injury claims against the State of Georgia or one of its agencies presents a far more complicated legal challenge than your regular personal injury lawsuit. The Georgia Constitution grants broad “sovereign immunity” to the state and its officers. This means that absent a specific legislative waiver of immunity, you cannot file a civil lawsuit against the state in its own courts.

The Georgia General Assembly has waived sovereign immunity for tort claims against state agencies and employees. This means that, for instance, if a state employee causes a car accident, the victims can sue the state for compensation. But this waiver only applies in cases where the employee who caused the injury was not engaged in a “discretionary” function. Essentially, you cannot hold the State of Georgia liable for any losses arising from the exercise or failure to perform a “discretionary function or duty” that requires a state employee to exercise any sort of “policy judgment.”

Court of Appeals Cites “Sovereign Immunity” in Dismissing Personal Injury Claim

A recent decision from the Georgia Court of Appeals, Sivak v. Georgia Department of Natural Resources, offers a cautionary example of how this exception works. This case involved a man (the plaintiff) who visited Cloudland Canyon State Park with his family. One of the park’s main features is “Main Overlook,” a natural rock formation that enables visitors to look out over a part of the canyon where two creeks meet.

Back in the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps installed a number of wooden railings near a portion of the Main Overlook. But many parts of the Overlook still contain no handrails, fences, or warning signs of any kind. So when the plaintiff in this case took a step back assuming there was a fence, he fell into a crevice on the Main Overlook and sustained serious injuries.

The plaintiff subsequently filed a personal injury lawsuit against the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR), alleging it was negligent in failing to place any sort of barrier or warning signs near the crevice where he fell. A trial judge dismissed the case, however, holding that the DNR’s decision not to place such barriers was an exercise of a “discretionary function” and thus protected by sovereign immunity. The Court of Appeals agreed.

Notably, the Court of Appeals said that the DNR’s decision not to place additional handrails or safety barriers reflected a “policy choice” driven by “historical and aesthetic considerations.” This required the DNR to consider a number of “social, political, and economic factors.” And the courts were not allowed to second guess those factors under the sovereign immunity rule.

Contact Hawkins Spizman Trial Lawyers Today

If you have been seriously injured on someone else’s property–whether publicly or privately owned–it is imperative that you seek out legal advice from a qualified Cobb County personal injury lawyer. Contact Hawkins Spizman Trial Lawyers today to schedule a free consultation. We serve clients throughout Georgia including Atlanta, Dunwoody, Alpharetta, Cobb County, Fulton County, Gwinnett County, Johns Creek and Sandy Springs.


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