Governmental Immunity and Auto Accidents

Governmental immunity, also known as sovereign immunity, is a doctrine under which a government agency or employee may escape liability for certain actions or omissions, even when a private person or entity that engaged in the same conduct 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, and on the principle that the King can do no wrong.

What Is Governmental Immunity

Governmental immunity comes in two basic forms:

  • Absolute Immunity: No action may be brought against the government employee or agency, even if the conduct underlying the claim was taken maliciously or in bad faith.

  • Qualified Immunity: The government agency or employee is only exempt from liability if certain conditions are met, as specified in statutes or court decisions applicable to the claim.

Governmental Immunity vs. Sovereign Immunity

In most states, the terms "governmental immunity" and "sovereign immunity" are used interchangeably. However, in some states a distinction is drawn between the two concepts. In those states, sovereign immunity refers to a state's immunity from lawsuits and civil liability, while governmental immunity extends that protection from the state itself to its various agencies and political subdivisions, including counties, cities and towns, and school districts.

Reasons for Governmental Immunity

Although governmental immunity may in some senses be anachronistic, it can also be essential to the effective operation of government. For example, if a judge issues a decision that ends a lawsuit, the parties may appeal but they may not sue the judge for rendering that decision, even if it is incorrect. Allowing lawsuits against the judge would create a significant burden on the courts, a significant cost for the government, and could result in a never-ending series of lawsuits as the losing party continues to sue judge after judge after losing each case.

Exceptions for Automobile Accidents

Sovereign immunity is defined in large part by statute, meaning that state legislatures may decide when and how it applies to claims made against a government agency or employee. States may create exemptions to sovereign immunity, and many have created exemptions for personal injury claims arising from automobile accidents.

Immunity for the Governmental Agency

Although governments typically create an exemption from sovereign immunity for accidents involving government-owned vehicles, they may impose a higher burden of proof on a plaintiff than would exist if the driver were a private individual. For example,

  • The state may require that the driver of a government vehicle be proved to have committed gross negligence, as opposed to ordinary negligence, in causing the accident. That generally means that the driver must be proved to have acted with indifference to the safety of others, as opposed to merely being careless.
  • The state may require proof of a greater level of culpability by the agency that employs the driver than would be required in an owner liability case against a private employer.

Governmental immunity frequently arises in automobile accidents involving emergency vehicles. Emergency vehicles may become involved in accidents while crossing intersections against a light or stop sign, or in disregard of the normal rules of right-of-way. If a governmental emergency vehicle, such as a police car or fire truck, has its siren on and its overhead lights activated, it is very difficult to sustain a lawsuit against the agency for injuries resulting from an accident with that vehicle.

States take different approaches to claims of liability for accidents resulting from police chases, brought by an innocent party injured by the police vehicle or the vehicle it is chasing.

  • 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.
  • In others, it may be possible to pursue a case based upon the conduct of the chase, or the agency's decision not to call off the chase when it became apparent that a continued chase would endanger innocent lives.

Immunity for Governmental Workers

When government workers cause car accidents while performing their job duties, many states limit sovereign immunity and permit personal injury lawsuit against the workers. However, in order to qualify for that exception, the plaintiff may have to demonstrate a higher level of culpability by the worker in causing the accident, such as having to demonstrate that the worker's actions constituted gross negligence - the conscious and intentional disregard of the safety of others while engaged in activity that is likely to cause injury to others - instead of the simple negligence standard, a failure to exercise reasonable care, more typically applied in accident cases.

A claim against a government agency may become more complicated 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 injury lawyer whenever sovereign immunity is likely to be raised as a defense to an injury claim.

Copyright © 2006 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was last reviewed or amended on May 7, 2018.