Municipal Liability: No Action for Damages Against a Municipality in Georgia for its Failure to Provide Medical Care to an Inmate


By: A. Ali Sabzevari

Earlier this month, the Georgia Supreme Court rendered its decision in City of Atlanta v. Mitcham, No. S14G0619, 2015 WL 659597 (Ga. Feb. 16, 2015), reversing the Georgia Court of Appeals’ flawed analysis in determining whether a municipality is entitled to sovereign immunity.  Last year, I noted that the Court of Appeals was erroneously blurring the distinction between the meaning of ministerial functions as pertinent to a City’s sovereign immunity and ministerial duties as pertinent to official immunity.  The Supreme Court, in reversing the Court of Appeals, agreed.

In Mitcham, an inmate was taken to a hospital because of “low blood sugar associated with diabetes.” When he was discharged, the hospital notified the City of the need to monitor his blood sugar and provide him with insulin.  When the City failed to monitor and regulate his insulin levels, the inmate suffered serious and permanent injuries.

Under Georgia law, cities are protected by sovereign immunity for acts taken in performance of a governmental function, but this immunity is waived for negligent performance of a ministerial function.

Governmental functions traditionally have been defined as those of a purely public nature, intended for the benefit of the public at large, without pretense of private gain to the municipality.  Ministerial functions, in comparison, are recognized as those involving the exercise of some private franchise, in which the general public has no interest.  The Supreme Court has acknowledged the difficulty in determining to which of the two classes a function belongs.

The Court of Appeals erroneously held that sovereign immunity in this case had been waived, stating that a government unit’s function of providing adequate medical care for inmates under its custody is ministerial in nature.  The Supreme Court reversed, finding that the care of inmates in the custody of a municipality is indeed a governmental function for which sovereign immunity has not been waived.

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.  What this means, practically, is that in Georgia there can be no action for damages against a municipality for its failure to provide medical care to an inmate regardless of the presence of negligence.

For more information, contact A. Ali Sabzevari at 770.303.8633 or [email protected].