Sovereign immunity remains a threshold jurisdictional question


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By: Amy B. Cowan

In a decision that clarifies the jurisdictional nature of the immunity, the Georgia Supreme Court recently upheld sovereign immunity as a threshold determination that must be considered and ruled upon before a court reaches the merits of a claim. See Bray v. Watkins, No. S23G0836, 2023WL7309335 (Ga. Supreme Court, November 7, 2023). The lawsuit was filed by Latoya Bray against sheriff’s lieutenant Stormie Watkins for damages which Bray claimed were caused by Watkins’ alleged failure to activate a county tornado warning system. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Watkins, finding that the public duty doctrine barred Bray’s claims. The Court of Appeals, in a split decision, affirmed the trial court, finding that the trial court was authorized to grant summary judgment based upon the public duty doctrine without first considering sovereign immunity which had been raised in Watkins’ Answer. The Georgia Supreme Court disagreed, granting Bray’s petition for writ of certiorari, and finding that sovereign immunity is a threshold jurisdictional question that must be addressed before a court can reach any issue on the merits. 

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