• Georgia Supreme Court Clarifies Apportionment Statute
  • August 6, 2015 | Author: Charles Greimann Hoey
  • Law Firm: Leitner, Williams, Dooley & Napolitan, PLLC - Atlanta Office
  • Recently, the Georgia Supreme Court, clarified the law regarding Georgia’s Apportionment Statute. The opinion in Zaldivar v. Prickett, S14G1778 decided July 6, 2015, describes the process of apportioning fault amongst multiple parties and non parties, and confirms that fault can be apportioned to a non-party. When defending personal injury claims, it will always be important to identify not just every other party, but every other tortfeasor who could have contributed to the plaintiff’s injuries regardless of whether that tortfeasor is, or can be, a party to the suit. The Supreme Court also clarified Georgia law to hold that in cases where negligent entrustment is alleged, both the individual who is negligent and the individual or company who negligently entrusted the vehicle or equipment to the negligent party can both be tortfeasors rather than forcing the jury to choose between one or the other.

    In the Zaldivar case, Mr. Daniel Prickett sued Imelda Zaldivar for injuries allegedly sustained in a 2009 motor vehicle accident when Mr. Prickett was driving a vehicle owned by Overhead Door. Mr. Prickett did not - and could not - sue Overhead Door. As Mr. Prickett’s employer, Overhead Door was shielded from tort liability by the exclusive remedy doctrine of the Georgia Workers’ Compensation Act for any injuries which Mr. Prickett suffered. Both Ms. Zaldivar and Mr. Prickett alleged that the other was at fault. Ms. Zaldivar further argued that fault could be apportioned to Overhead Door pursuant to O.C.G.A. § 51-12-33 under a negligent entrustment theory. Although the parties agreed that Overhead Door could not be a party to this particular case, there was a dispute regarding whether any fault could potentially be apportioned to Overhead Door by a jury. The Court of Appeals held that fault could not be assigned to a non-party, and the Georgia Supreme Court reversed.

    O.C.G.A. § 51-12-33(c) requires the trier of fact “to consider the fault of all persons or entities who contributed to the alleged injury or damages.” The Supreme Court wrote a detailed analysis of the language of the statute. The opinion also emphasizes that the entirety of the statute must be examined to ensure that the relevant provision was being read and the proper context and given the proper meaning. The Supreme Court concluded that fault could be apportioned to “any persons or entities who contributed to the alleged injury or damages regardless of their liability or potential liability to the plaintiff in tort.” The “person or entities” partly at fault must have committed a tort or breached a legal duty to the plaintiff to have fault apportioned to them. The party raising this affirmative defense must also show that this breach was the proximate cause of all or some of the alleged injuries or damages. If those criteria are met, then fault should be apportioned regardless of any other affirmative defense which protects the “person or entities” from legal liability.

    There will be times when a negligent “person or entities” cannot be sued or added to a case due to some affirmative defense such as the exclusive remedy doctrine, or governmental immunity, or settlement of their portion of the case. The key point is that the apportionment of damages defense can be successful regardless of whether the “person or entities” allegedly at fault have been, or can be, joined into the lawsuit.

    The Supreme Court also clarified a point of law regarding the negligent entrustment defense. Ms. Zaldivar was alleging that Mr. Prickett was at fault in her cross claim. She further defended the suit by alleging that Overhead Door negligently entrusted the vehicle to him. The Court held that liability or fault could be apportioned between a negligent driver and a party who (allegedly) was negligent by negligently entrusting their vehicle to a particular driver. If there was negligent entrustment, that negligence does not eliminate the negligence, if any, of the driver. If the driver was negligent, that negligence would not eliminate the negligence, if any, of the person or entity who entrusted the vehicle to the driver. The jury can apportion negligence between the parties and is not required to designate one party or the other as having been negligent.

    The Zaldivar should help protect the interests of insurers and reduce potential exposure. This opinion confirms that in cases involving multiple parties or potential tortfeasors, liability can be apportioned regardless of whether all the tortfeasors are parties to the case or have any liability. The negligent entrustment defense can also be used to spread liability amongst other tortfeasors without having to prove that a particular tortfeasor was entirely negligent.