How a Teenager’s Electrocution Became a Two Million Dollar Wrongful Death Lawsuit

We don’t often ponder the power of words. In the world where we live, we are bombarded daily with words to make us behave in one way or another – to think this, or buy that. There are entire industries built around words and the changes they can make in the lives of human beings.

Quite often, and particularly in the practice of law, interpreting the words used by another can make or break a case. Take, for example, words like “agency,” “foster home,” or “employee” that can help to clarify who and what roles individuals play in the case.

How This Tragedy Happened

A tragedy claimed the life of a young juvenile offender who was in the custody of the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice and the Department of Family and Children’s Services. The 15-year-old boy was placed in a privately-owned rehabilitation facility where he was under the supervision of one of the house parent’s there.

One day the youngster was told to sweep behind a freezer in the facility’s basement. The boy was electrocuted by faulty wiring as he tried to follow the instructions he was given. The boy’s mother sued the State agencies involved, the rehab facility, and the “house parent” for wrongful death.

How Civil Injury Lawsuits Against the State Work

Many people do not know that in most cases government entities, such as the State of Georgia can only be sued if the legislature very specifically waives the State’s right to sovereign immunity from tort liability. In other words, the State and all their employees are protected from liability as long as they are engaged in their job duties. The only exception would be if legislators took the specific action of waiving those rights to immunity in a very specific case.

In this wrongful death case, Ga. Dep’t of Human Res. v. Johnson, 264 Ga. App. 730 (2003), no such waiver was enacted and State agencies and their employees were protected.

Nevertheless, the case went to trial and the jury found in favor of the boy’s estate. The jury awarded $2,000,000 for his wrongful death.

The Appealed Verdict

The Georgia Department of Human Resources and the Georgia Dept. of Juvenile Justice appealed the verdict, now asserting that the trial judge was in error in not dismissing the case against them. They also faulted the court for denying their motion for a directed verdict because of their sovereign immunity. Also following the trial, attorneys for the co-defendant rehabilitation facility appeal saying the jury’s verdict was excessive. They also attempted to claim sovereign immunity since they claimed to be acting as a State Agency. Finally, they argued that the boy’s life was worth less because of his lack of education and his history of bad behavior.

The appellate court writes at length about this case. After studying the laws and definitions of certain ‘tricky’ words, in order to clarify how the statutes applied, the appeals court reversed the judgments against the two state agencies and affirmed the judgment for the corporate rehab facility. The facility was not protected as being an arm of the state. It was merely a contractor working for the state and did not enjoy immunity.

The Fairness of the Georgia Court System

It’s also rewarding to see that the State of Georgia and its judicial system does not presume to assign a value to a life based on past performance or future hopes. Instead, Georgia sees fit to allow a jury to hear the evidence to assess the worth of a human life and make awards accordingly. In this case, the judicial system defended the value of this boy’s life in spite of his poor social performance.

If you have been injured or have suffered the loss of a loved one through the negligence of others, you may have the right to recover. We can’t go back in time and erase tragedies, but we can often help make sure the negligent others are more careful in the future. No matter how powerful your adversaries are, a good legal counsel can help level the playing field.

Call The Millar Law Firm today. Allow us to evaluate your circumstances and advise you how to move forward in spite of your loss. The court system is on your side whether you are rich or poor – you deserve justice. Let us help you get it. Call today.