SUING THE GOVERNMENT
March 27th, 2018 | Michael A. Lombardo, III
Many people wrongly assume that the government can’t be sued. The fact is, the government does enjoy broad immunity from liability for injury victims’ damages, but that immunity is not absolute. There are a number of circumstances under which one can seek recovery for damages from the federal or state government or a local municipality.
While a lawsuit can be brought against a government agency, HKQ Attorney Michael Lombardo cautions that, “these types of cases are far more difficult to prevail in than normal personal injury claims”.
Government agencies are protected by either sovereign immunity or governmental immunity.
The former applies to lawsuits against the federal or state governments. The latter covers claims against local municipalities.
The Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) is a federal statute that permits private parties to sue the United States for certain torts committed by persons acting on behalf of the United States. The FTCA provides a limited waiver of the federal government's sovereign immunity when its employees are negligent within the scope of their employment. The law of the state where the act or omission occurred must permit the claim. The federal government can’t be sued in state court. The civil suit is typically filed in the United States District Court where the aggrieved party lives or where the actions giving rise to the claim occurred. Punitive damages are precluded by FTCA.
Pennsylvania has two statutes which shield its government agencies from liability when people suffer injury on government property or by government workers. The Sovereign Immunity Act provides the state with immunity from lawsuits. The Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act provides essentially the same rules and protections for municipalities, e.g., local government agencies.
The Sovereign Immunity Act provides nine exceptions where sovereign immunity will not apply. These exceptions include:
- Vehicle liability
- Medical professional liability
- Care, custody or control of personal property
- Commonwealth real estate, highways and sidewalks
- Potholes and other dangerous conditions
- Care, custody or control of animals
- Liquor store sales
- National Guard activities
- Toxoids and vaccines
In Cagey v. Commonwealth, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently ruled that the state can be held liable for dangerous guardrails. The Court’s decision was based on the real estate exception to sovereign immunity. The dangerous guardrail in question was located on Commonwealth real estate adjacent to a highway. In arriving at its decision, the Court noted that “the real estate exception to sovereign immunity is broad in that it applies to dangerous conditions of all Commonwealth real estate, not just dangerous conditions of highways.”
The types of damages allowed under the Sovereign Immunity Act include: (1) past and future loss of earnings and earning capacity; (2) pain and suffering; (3) medical and dental expenses; (4) loss of consortium; and (5) property losses (except in actions involving dangerous conditions created by potholes and sinkholes on Commonwealth highways.)
Under the Sovereign Immunity Act, damages shall not exceed $250,000 in favor of any plaintiff or $1,000,000 in the aggregate.
The Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act, which bars suits against local municipalities, provides a number of exceptions, including:
- Operation of a motor vehicle
- Care, custody or control of personal property of others in the possession or control of local agency
- Care, custody or control of real property in the possession of the local agency
- Care, custody or control of trees, traffic controls and street lighting, which create a dangerous condition
- A dangerous condition of utility service facilities
- A dangerous condition of streets
- A dangerous condition of sidewalks
- The care, custody or control of animals
The Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act establishes a statutory cap which provides that damages shall not exceed $500,000 in the aggregate.
If you’ve suffered a serious injury due to the negligence of a government agency or employee, call HKQ Law at (800) 760-1529 to discuss the case with one of our personal injury attorneys.