Victims who suffer injury due to the negligence of a town or city government—or employee—often find that recovery is a lot harder than if they had been injured by a non-government actor. While it does not seem like the victims recovery should depend on who committed the negligence, it all too often does. And when it comes to suing a city, county or state government or its employees, victims can run into all sorts of obstacles. One of those is known as “sovereign immunity”.
Sovereign immunity basically means that government entities are protected against lawsuits based on claims like negligence. So if you slip and fall in a store, you can sue the owner of the store. If you slip and fall walking into city hall, you’re out of luck. Why this special treatment? Well the idea behind sovereign immunity goes back centuries, but it basically comes down to protecting the government from interference with performing its functions. It helps to ensure that state or local money and personnel aren’t tied up in defending all sorts of lawsuits, but instead can carry out the business that government is supposed to be carrying out.
Just how far does sovereign immunity go? Well it depends on who the victim wants to sue. It’s hardest to bring a lawsuit against a state or a county and a little bit easier to sue a city government. But the question the courts will look to is: did the accident occur while the government was carrying out specifically government business for the public as a whole? If so, then no lawsuit may be allowed. But if not—if the government was taking part in some sort of activity that private corporations normally do and that benefit the city government—then a lawsuit might be allowed.
There are also some explicit exceptions to sovereign immunity. For example, the government can be sued for gross negligence, nuisance and intentional torts. Sometimes statutes might explicitly state that the government can be sued if it engages in a particular type of act. But even when these exceptions apply, a plaintiff will often have to jump through a few more procedural hoops before they get their day in court.
Without a doubt, the fairness—and wisdom—of sovereign immunity can be debated. It certainly does not seem like the government should be able to get away with negligence and there is an argument that services improve when there is a possibility of being sued. But at least for now, protecting the government is the way that law stands.