Municipal Liability: Failing to Provide Inmates with Adequate Medical Attention


By: A. Ali Sabzevari
The Georgia Supreme Court is set to hear oral argument this September and will hopefully address and bring clarity to what the proper analysis is for determining whether a municipality is entitled to sovereign immunity for an inmate’s claim for failure to provide adequate medical care.  See City of Atlanta v. Mitcham, 325 Ga. App. 481, 751 S.E.2d 598, 599 (2013).
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 negligently performing governmental duties, but this immunity is waived if they negligently perform ministerial duties.
The Court in Mitcham found broadly that a “government unit’s” function of providing adequate medical care for inmates under its custody is ministerial in nature, and therefore, the City had waived its sovereign immunity.  The Court relied on Cantrell v. Thurman, 231 Ga. App. 510, 514, 499 S.E.2d 416, 421 (1998), a case involving a county, where the Court of Appeals denied official immunity to a county sheriff and sheriff’s deputy and held that providing medical care to persons in governmental custody is a ministerial act.
The judgment of the Court in Mitcham is debatable, but what is of greater concern is that the majority is blurring the distinction between the meaning of ministerial duties as pertinent to a City’s sovereign immunity and ministerial acts as pertinent to official immunity.  Moreover, questions of sovereign immunity and its waiver for municipalities and counties, as well as questions of official immunity, are based on different provisions of the Georgia Constitution and different statutes, and as such, courts and litigants alike should be cautious in merging the analysis.
This September the Georgia Supreme Court has the opportunity to bring clarity to the analysis for determining whether a municipality has waived its sovereign immunity when failing to provide adequate medical care to its inmates.