Of course, governments can and are held accountable for negligence all the time. But sovereign immunity becomes one of several challenges to overcome in these cases. Sovereign immunity must be waived by the government entity. At the federal level, this is done mainly through the Federal Tort Claims Act, which waives immunity if a tortious act of a federal employee results in damage. As well, the Tucker Act waives immunity over claims arising out of federal government contracts.
States, meanwhile, have individual statutes pertaining to sovereign immunity, and the limitations for litigation follow the plain language of those laws. In Florida, F.S. 768.28 covers waiver of sovereign immunity in tort actions, recovery limits, exclusions and more.
The issue of sovereign immunity in the courts is a matter of law, and it will usually be decided before a case even makes it to the trial phase.
In a recent case out of Georgia, the Georgia Supreme Court was tasked with deciding whether, in fact, a claim against a city government should be barred under the doctrine of sovereign immunity. Our car accident attorneys in Fort Myers understand the claim arose from the crash of a prison work van, owned by a city government but leased by the state department of corrections.
According to court records in Primas v. City of Milledgeville, the driver of the prison work van approached an intersection and the brake failed. Plaintiff was able to steer the vehicle off the road, so as to avoid injury to others, but he himself was injured when the van slammed into a utility pole.
Plaintiff later filed a lawsuit against the city, owner of the van, for negligence in failing to inspect and maintain the brake lines of the vehicle. The city claimed sovereign immunity on the grounds that inspection and maintenance of brakes was a discretionary act for which sovereign immunity would not be waived.
In sovereign immunity cases, discretionary functions of government workers are made distinct from operational functions in that the former involve the exercise of discretion or judgment, while the later involve simply the execution of set tasks and policies.
Trial court denied city’s request for summary judgment finding that such action was not discretionary. However, the appellate court reversed.
But when the case was appealed to the state supreme court, justices again reversed and remanded for reconsideration, finding the appellate court’s ruling flawed. Both sides, in fact, conceded the appellate court had applied the wrong principle. While citing statutes for sovereign immunity, the court actually applied a type of immunity called official immunity, and in so doing, applied legal definitions that were actually irrelevant.
Plaintiff argued that regardless of whether inspection and maintenance were discretionary, immunity was waived through the city’s purchase of insurance on the vehicle (which is an exception listed under state law).
However, state supreme court noted this particular argument was not raised before the trial court and therefore could not be litigated for the first time on appeal. However, the appellate court’s application of the wrong type of immunity required the court to reconsider the issue under the correct legal principles.
If you have been injured in an accident, contact the Hollander Law Firm at (888) 751-7770 for a free and confidential consultation. There is no fee unless we win.
Primas v. City of Milledgeville, Feb. 16, 2015, Georgia Supreme Court
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