Governmental Immunity and Auto Accidents
By Aaron Larson
- What Is Governmental Immunity
- Exceptions for Automobile Accidents
- Immunity for the Governmental Agency
- Immunity for Governmental Workers
Governmental immunity, also known as sovereign immunity, is a concept by which a government agency or employee can escape liability for certain actions or omissions, even where a private person or entity would be held liable for damages. Sovereign immunity arises from the archaic notion that you cannot sue the King in the King's own court, on the principle that the King can do no wrong.
States can create exemptions to sovereign immunity, and often do so in relation to automobile accidents. However, they may require that a plaintiff show a greater level of culpability by the government agency or employee in order to recover damages, than that which would have to be demonstrated against a private actor..
As noted above, governments typically create an exemption from sovereign immunity for accidents involving government-owned vehicles. However, they may require the demonstration of a greater level of culpability by the driver who caused the accident than would be required in a typical accident case, before they will allow a suit premised upon principles of owner liability against the governmental agency which owns the vehicle.
Governmental immunity frequently arises in automobile accidents involving emergency vehicles, which may become involved in accidents while crossing intersections against a light. Generally speaking, it is very difficult to sustain a lawsuit against a government agency for an accident which occurs while a governmental emergency vehicle, such as a police car or fire truck, has its siren and overhead lights activated.
There is considerable divergence in the way states treat accidents resulting from police chases. In some states, the police may be sued only if the police vehicle is physically involved in the accident, but the police are immune from suit if the accident involves only the car they are pursuing.
When a government worker causes a car accident while performing his or her job duties, many states limit sovereign immunity to permit a lawsuit against the worker. However, the exception may require the injured plaintiff to demonstrate a higher level of culpability by the worker in order to recover damages, such as having to demonstrate "gross negligence" by the worker instead of the simple negligence more typically required in accident cases.
Complications may arise when a governmental worker causes an accident while on the job, but while driving his or her own vehicle.
Due to the complexity of governmental immunity laws, it is important to consult an experienced lawyer whenever sovereign immunity is raised as a defense.
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