A multiple vehicle wreck on Wednesday, February 5, 2013 on I-16 between Macon and Dublin claimed 4 lives and caused 9 injuries. Macon Telegraph reporters Amy Leigh Womack, Liz Fabian and Joe Kovac Jr. reported on this wreck in the Telegraph. It appears that fog and smoke were involved and that a permit had been issued by the Georgia Forestry Commission for the burning; according to the article, smoke from the burning of 75 acres of underbrush in Montrose combined with fog to create very limited visibility on I-16 around 8 am near the Bleckley-Laurens County line , when the wrecks started. The chain reaction came to include 27 vehicles.
This is not the first time a highway wreck has involved smoke on the highway. Legal issues arising out of these types of wrecks can be quite complicated, and state agencies may claim that they are immune from lawsuits in these circumstances. For example, in Georgia Forestry Commission v. Canady (280 Ga. 825, 2006), the Georgia Forestry Commission claimed immunity associated with a controlled burn that caused smoke on the highway. In that opinion, the Georgia Supreme Court set some general limits to the breadth of the immunity granted to state government agencies involved with police and fire protection. While the opinion goes on at some length in discussing other states’ approaches to immunity from lawsuits for government agencies, the gist of the opinion is that government agencies are immune from suit for the policy decisions they make – both the making of those policy decisions and the implementation of those policy decisions. But they do not appear to be immune for acts that are not involved with basic policy decisions. So, for example, Mr. Canady could argue that the decision to not notify other law enforcement agencies of the burning was not a policy-making type of decision but a simpler decision having nothing to do with making or implementing a policy. I would expect that similar legal issues will be involved in this complicated and tragic multi-vehicle wreck.