The Georgia Supreme Court has handed down an opinion that puts an end to a civil suit filed against the City of Statesboro. The decision comes five years after the suit was filed and seven years after the death of Michael Gatto.
The parents of Michael Gatto filed a lawsuit in 2016 against the City of Statesboro and then-city clerk Sue Starling. The family claimed the actions by the City led to the death of their son.
Death of Michael Gatto
In August 2014, a Rude Rudy’s bartender reportedly told a bouncer, Grant Spencer, that Michael Gatto was stealing money from the tip jar.
Spencer went to remove Michael from the bar and Spencer ended up striking Michael five times in the head/face, “until he was limp and unconscious, and then dropped him on the floor of the bar.” Spencer then pulled Gatto outside where he was found by emergency personnel. He was airlifted to a hospital in Savannah where he died.
Both Gatto and Spencer had been drinking and Gatto was in a pre-trial diversion program for charges of theft of services and underage consumption of alcohol at the time of his death.
Spencer was charged with felony murder and aggravated battery by ADA Daphne Totten, but pled guilty to voluntary manslaughter. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison and must serve 13 before he will be eligible for parole.
Civil Suit Filed
The Gatto civil suit relied on the City of Statesboro’s decision to award business, occupational, and alcohol licenses to the now-shuttered Rude Rudy’s bar. The suit also claimed the city failed to enforce its own ordinances, particularly with regard to alcohol violations.
The Gattos submitted that the bars in the area “routinely admitted and served alcohol to underage patrons, that violence in the Plaza was common, and that the City had knowingly failed to address these issues.” That made them liable, the family alleged.
The suit was unsuccessful and in October 2018, Judge Greg Mikell granted a motion for summary judgment in favor of the City. His decision relied, in part, on sovereign immunity. Mikell also said the “causal chain between the defendants’ acts and Michael’s injuries and death was broken by intervening criminal acts of Michael and Spencer.”
The Gattos appealed the decision to the Georgia Court of Appeals, which in 2019 affirmed the decision of the trial court as it pertains to sovereign immunity. The Gattos then appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court, claiming the City was not immune because of their operation of a nuisance.
2021 SCOGA Ruling
The Georgia Supreme Court in its recent 2021 ruling said the City of Statesboro is immune from liability for the conduct alleged by the Gattos because “municipalities have never faced liability for a nuisance claim based on alleged conduct related to property they neither own nor control, and nothing in our Constitution alters that principle.”
The Court also emphasized that Rude Rudy’s was a privately owned business operating out of retail premises leased from a separate, privately owned corporation. From the opinion:
“Even to the extent the environment at University Plaza may accurately be characterized as having constituted a nuisance – a matter on which we express no opinion – the law is clear that the City cannot be held liable for its discretionary decision not to act to abate a nuisance caused by a private party and maintained on private property. Accordingly, we conclude that the City was correctly held to be immune from liability as to the Gattos’ nuisance claim.”
The ruling affirmed lower court rulings which also held the city was not liable.
The decision was affirmed with all the Justices concurring except Ellington, J., who concurred in the judgment only. Justice Peterson was disqualified from the decision. It cannot be appealed any further.
Other Impacts from Gatto Death
The impacts of Gatto’s death went well beyond a prison sentence for Spencer and a civil lawsuit.
The City of Statesboro spent years reforming its alcohol ordinances and in 2017 voted to require certain establishments that serve alcohol to carry liability insurance. For a period of time, the city was holding monthly administrative hearings and conducting random checks for alcohol violations, but those have ceased since 2018.
In 2015, the Georgia General Assembly passed Michael’s Law, spearheaded by Geoff Duncan, who was a state representative at the time. The measure made it harder to become a bouncer in the state of Georgia. No one under the age of 21 is permitted to work in one either.
You can read the entire opinion here.