When suing a negligent driver for injuries, the general rule in Georgia is that the negligent driver must be personally served with the legal paperwork—this means a sheriff must hand deliver the legal paperwork to the negligent driver. This undisputedly insures that the negligent driver is aware of the lawsuit. But what happens when the negligent driver’s whereabouts are unknown? For instance, the negligent driver has moved or is intentionally avoiding service.
While this isn’t a common problem, it occurs from time to time. From a personal injury standpoint, this becomes a critical issue when the negligent driver has insurance coverage but can’t be found. Is the insurance company still on the hook to provide coverage?
If the negligent driver can’t be personally served, Georgia law allows what is called service by publication. This is when notice of the lawsuit is published in the local newspaper. This is permitted when the person resides outside the state, or has departed from the state, or can’t, after due diligence, be found within the state, or conceals himself or herself to avoid the service of the summons. This language is found in O.C.G.A. § 9-11-4(f)(1)(A).
Sounds easy enough, but, as mentioned above, the important question is whether service by publication is sufficient to hold the insurance company liable. Like most legal questions, it depends …
Henderson v. James, A19A0632 (June 6, 2019), a Georgia Court of Appeals decision, faced the exact question. In this case, which involved whether an insurance company could be held liable on behalf of a negligent driver who couldn’t be personally served. Even though the negligent driver had been service by publication, the Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the insurance company, holding that service by publication gives a court personal jurisdiction (i.e., allows a recovery against the insurance company) if, and only if, all of the following apply:
(1) The lawsuit must involve a tort (a wrongful act or an infringement of a right leading to civil legal liability). Because injuries from motor vehicle collisions are considered torts, this is not an issue in these cases.
(2) The negligent driver must be a resident in the county where the lawsuit is filed and must be present within the county.
(3) The negligent driver must have actual knowledge of the lawsuit and must be intentionally avoiding being served with the legal paperwork.
Only if the evidence shows that all three of the above standards have been met will the insurance company be responsible for providing coverage. In Henderson, the injured party lost because the evidence before the court didn’t establish the second or third standards.
A trick used by the insurance companies is to file a motion to dismiss on this issue two years after the collision. In Georgia, there is a two-year statute of limitation. If the negligent driver isn’t properly served within the two years, then most of the time the case is dismissed. Generally, there are no second chances after the two years has expired.
Getting personal service within two years after the motor vehicle collision is critical. Please call us if you are injured in a motor vehicle collision. We have over 20 years’ experience dealing with these types of issues.