The Supreme Court of Georgia upheld a long-standing principle that the doctrine of sovereign immunity protects cities from liability for not addressing nuisances that are caused by private parties on private property.
The case, Gatto v. City of Statesboro (June 21, 2021), concerned the tragic death of Michael Gatto, an 18-year-old college student who died from injuries he suffered while being thrown out of a bar in the University Plaza area of town (the bouncer pled guilty to voluntary manslaughter). It was undisputed that the altercation resulting in his death occurred at the hands of a private individual on private property that was controlled by a privately owned business.
However, Mr. Gatto’s parents sued the city claiming it was liable under nuisance laws for not taking action to curb violence and enforce laws against underage drinking at bars in the University Plaza area, when there was evidence businesses operating in that area had reputations for both. The Gattos claimed that by renewing business and alcohol licenses for the bars in the University Plaza area, despite the area’s reputation for unlawful activities, the city perpetuated a nuisance which, ultimately, led to the death of their son. Essentially, the Gattos argued that since the area was known for allowing unlawful activity, the city should not have allowed the businesses to stay open, and that the city’s decision to allow the businesses to stay open led to the death of their son.
In considering the case, the court noted that cities can be held liable for harm to others that results from
the city’s operation of a nuisance, and that a city cannot lawfully create a nuisance situation that is dangerous to life or health, or damage private property for a public purpose without compensation. Examples of nuisances for which a city could be liable might include flooding of private property caused by construction or maintenance of a water or sewer system or failing to fix a malfunctioning traffic light that the city knows is causing confusion and leading to accidents. In these examples, the city is in charge of and is to some degree responsible for the activity or situation causing the harm. However, there have not been any Georgia cases in which cities have been responsible for harm caused by circumstances outside of the city’s control, such as those in the Gatto case.
Ultimately, as tragic as Mr. Gatto’s death was, the city did not cause his death or own or control the property where it occurred and was not responsible for it. Without deciding whether the environment at University Plaza actually counted as a “nuisance”, the court held that the city did not have a positive duty to abate a nuisance caused by a private party on private property and that the city was immune from the Gattos’ nuisance claim. If the court had decided differently, cities across Georgia would be in the impossible position of needing to determine when each and every business in their jurisdiction violated the law to the extent it could make the city liable for a nuisance.
This article was originally featured in the July/August 2021 edition of Georgia’s Cities Magazine.