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Judicial immunity does not protect county

As the number of General Sessions Court judges serving Washington County increases, so does the county’s exposure to plaintiffs who argue the judges’ decisions and seek to recover damages from the local government.
During the Nov. 1 meeting of the Legal Services Oversight Committee, County Attorney John Rambo explained plaintiffs are prevented from recovering money from judges for causes of action related to their decisions within the scope of their official duties by a common law legal principle known as judicial immunity.
Unfortunately, judicial immunity does not extend to the judges’ employer, which leaves Washington County at risk for potential large payouts of taxpayer dollars. Rambo proposed seeking an amendment to the Tennessee Governmental Tort Liability Act to protect counties against such claims.
While the GTLA offers some immunity to counties, exceptions permit a suit against a governmental entity when an employee of that entity acting within the scope of his or her employment negligently causes injury to another during a non-discretionary act, which is an act that involves the implementation of current procedures and policies.
A recent ruling in Washington County’s favor from the state Court of Appeals is an example of what could have been a close call.
In an opinion filed Oct. 29, the state Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of a lawsuit filed more than a year ago seeking to recover damages from Washington County for alleged negligence in the operational decision of a General Sessions Court judge.
Rambo emphasized to committee members the Court of Appeals removed the county’s immunity in its consideration, finding the General Sessions judge to be an employee of Washington County and the action operational in nature.
Washington County was saved from liability in this case only by asserting another legal principle, the Doctrine of Proximate Cause, which relates to the foreseeability of an action resulting in damages to someone.
Rambo is proposing an amendment to the GTLA that would enable county governments to receive the same judicial immunity that is extended to General Sessions Court judges.
If approved by the commission, Rambo said the legislation would be addressed by the General Assembly in January 2013.
Commissioner George “Skip” Oldham made a motion for Rambo to draft the amendment for consideration at the December commission meeting. Commissioner Mike Ford seconded the motion, which passed unanimously.