Lloyd Bell (Photo: John Disney/ALM)
The Georgia Supreme Court has turned aside an appeal from Agnes Scott College seeking to end a long-running false imprisonment lawsuit that began when a student accused a woman of sexual assault and had her arrested.
The convoluted case has already been dismissed once, only to be revived by the justices, and a 2016 trial ended in a mistrial over juror misbehavior.
The college had asked the trial judge to issue a verdict in its favor despite the mistrial, which DeKalb County State Court Judge Johnny Panos declined to do.
That decision was upheld by the state Court of Appeals last year; the justices refused to grant certiorari to the college on Monday.
“We were real pleased to see the Supreme Court deny cert; now we’ll be heading back to DeKalb County for another trial,” said Bell Law Firm principal Lloyd Bell, who represents plaintiff Amanda Hartley.
“The issues that are now back in front of the jury are the responsibilities of a private school such as Agnes Scott for the campus officers they hire,” said Bell. “This entire last appeal has involved Agnes Scott’s efforts to convince first the trial court, then the Court of Appeals, that they should not be responsible. The Supreme Court has just told them they are wrong.”
Agnes Scott’s defense team includes B. David Ladner of Bendin, Sumrall & Ladner, along with partner Brian Trulock and associate Alan Payne. Ladner was unavailable on Tuesday.
The case began in 2009 when an Agnes Scott student named Hayley Maxwell claimed that Hartley, then a graduate student at the University of Tennessee, had violently assaulted Maxwell in her dorm room. An Agnes Scott police officer took Maxwell for an exam, but there was no evidence of bruising or trauma, according to court filings.
College police Lt. Gaetano Antinozzi obtained a warrant charging Hartley with aggravated sexual battery and other charges. Hartley was arrested in Knoxville, Tennessee, and brought to the DeKalb County Jail, where she was locked up for more than three weeks.
During that time, according to her filings, she was beaten by other inmates, placed in solitary confinement and subjected to cavity searches by female officers while male officers looked on.
Hartley was able to prove she was in Tennessee at the time of the alleged attack, and her charges were dismissed. But by the time she was released, she had missed—and subsequently failed—her final exams at the University of Tennessee, been expelled from the premed program and lost her scholarship and grant funding, according to her filings.
In 2011, Hartley sued Agnes Scott, Antinozzi and two other officers for false arrest, false imprisonment and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Agnes Scott filed a motion to dismiss arguing that, under the Georgia Tort Claims Act, the officers were shielded under sovereign immunity, even though they were privately employed at a private college.
Panos denied the motion, but, in a 4-to-3 opinion, the Georgia Court of Appeals panel reversed him in 2013, with the majority ruling that the officers were acting in service to the state and were thus immune and that Agnes Scott could not be liable, because the school did not direct the officers to seek Harley’s arrest.
The Georgia Supreme Court reversed that opinion in 2014, ruling unanimously that, because the officers were not acting for any state entity or agency, they were not immune from suit.
By the time the case went to trial in 2016, the individual officers had been dismissed from the case, and only Agnes Scott remained as a defendant.
The trial took more than a week, and jurors had twice sent out notes saying they were deadlocked when another note came forth indicating that one juror had been researching the case and communicating with a policeman friend and trying to influence the panel.
Panos declared a mistrial, and Agnes Scott filed the motion for judgment notwithstanding the mistrial, arguing there was no evidence that it was vicariously responsible for any improper actions by its campus policemen.
Panos refused, and last May the Georgia Court Appeals agreed that he had properly denied the motion.
“Although Agnes Scott argues that there is no evidence that it specifically directed Antinozzi’s investigation of and other actions pertaining to Hartley, there is no dispute that Agnes Scott generally authorized Antinozzi to exercise law enforcement powers in his work as its campus policeman,” wrote Judge Christopher McFadden with the concurrence of Judges Brian Rickman and William Ray II (now a federal judge).
“Because there is a basis for finding that Antinozzi was working as Agnes Scott’s servant when he committed the allegedly tortious acts,” it said, “Agnes Scott may be vicariously liable for those acts if Antinozzi committed them while acting within the general scope of his duties for Agnes Scott.”
Bell said he hasn't been contacted by opposing counsel regarding any settlement discussions since the latest development but noted that the college appointed a new president last year, attorney Leocadia “Lee” Zak.
"There has been a change of leadership at Agnes Scott, so there’s a possibility that that might impact the decision," said Bell. "The value of the case and the harm Agnes Scott caused my client has not diminished."