Plane crash suits could bankrupt, Thomson mayor says

At the scene in Thomson after the 2013 crash



ATLANTA — Lawsuits stemming from a fatal plane crash in Thomson spurred a House subcommittee Monday to approve legislation giving cities the same protection from lawsuits as counties.

The panel also OK’d a bill to exempt payroll documents of government contractors from the state’s open records law.

The February 2013 crash of a Beechcraft airplane at the Thomson-McDuffie Regional Airport while returning from a routine flight from Nashville took the lives of five staffers of The Vein Guys medical clinic. Their families are suing as is one of the two pilots who survived the crash. Those seven suits against the city and county are still pending and might not come to trial for years.

Thomson Mayor Ken Usry said that if any settlements or jury awards exceed the $5 million insurance coverage the city has, the results could be financially devastating for him and the city. That’s because a 20-year-old law grants the county immunity but not the city.

“The county can walk, and the balance of the lawsuit will fall on me and the city,” he said. “It can bankrupt me.”

State Rep. Barry Fleming, who sponsored House Bill 1010, led the subcommittee considering it and serves as the city attorney for several small cities. He said he wanted to make things equal for the two types of local governments. Otherwise, the Harlem Republican said, cities will be unwilling to enter into joint projects with counties if they aren’t facing equal liability.

Usry can’t benefit from HB 1010, but he said failure to pass it would indeed stop him from cooperating with the county.

“This has gotten my attention,” he said. “If I’m going to go into ventures with the county, I need a balanced playing field.”

Attorneys who represent clients suing governments told the panel that the best way to make things equal would be to remove the protections that counties enjoy.

“Public policy ought to be able to hold our cities and counties accountable for the harm they do,” said Jason Rooks, a lobbyist for the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association.

The subcommittee sent the bill to the full House Judiciary Committee, along with House Bill 796, to make confidential the personnel records of government contractors.

Normally, private companies doing business with the government would not be subject to the state’s Sunshine Law, but when federal funding is involved, the Truman-era labor-protection Davis-Bacon Act requires contractors to submit payroll documents to prove they are paying workers the prevailing wage for the area.

HB 796 would shield those workers from identity theft, said its sponsor, Rep. John Carson, R-Marietta. Plus, it will prevent competitors from poaching.

“If a competitor finds out what I’m paying my guy, he can pay him more and steal my guy,” said Mark Woodall, a lobbyist for Associated General Contractors.

A Trial Lawyers Association lobbyist objected to HB 796 as hindering the public from knowing exactly who is doing the work on government contracts, but the committee unanimously approved the bill.