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Sovereign Immunity and Personal Injury Lawsuits

November 20, 2017

You might be familiar with the term immunity.  It is most often depicted on television in police procedural shows.  Typically, the police haul in a suspect and offer him immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony against other criminals.  In other words, the suspect will be immune from criminal punishment.  You may not be as familiar with the term Sovereign Immunity.

Sovereign Immunity is a legal doctrine that insulates governments from liability.  The theory essentially means that the government cannot commit wrong.  Proponents of the theory argue that it serves a practical purpose.  Because of the unique role of the government, it could not function if it were forced to spend time litigating in the courts.  Others argue that shields the government from accountability thus creating an inefficient government.  Regardless, it is important to understand that if a government entity or employee is the proximate cause of your injury, you may not have a legal right to bring a lawsuit.

However, Sovereign Immunity is often waived by statute.  This waiver applies to certain scenarios and is different in every jurisdiction.  In Florida, this waiver is codified at § 768.28.  The statute reads “[i]n accordance with s. 13, Art. X of the State Constitution, the state, for itself and for its agencies or subdivisions, hereby waives sovereign immunity for liability for torts, but only to the extent specified in this act.”  It is important to understand that almost no immunities exist for tortious actors in their private capacity.  But, if your injuries are caused by a representative of the government, this statute will determine whether you have a legal right to sue.

The term government includes a long list of agencies and actors.  Police, emergency responders, public officials, maintenance and construction crews, primary schools, secondary schools, and public universities are all government entities.  At some point, all of us interact with these government officials and actors.  And, unfortunately, sometimes these encounters result in injury.

Those bringing a tort action must follow the rules outlined in § 768.28.  The specific waiver in the statute allows suits “to recover damages in tort for money damages against the state or its agencies . . . caused by the negligent or wrongful act or omission of any employee of the agency . . . acting within the scope of the employee’s office . . . under circumstances in which . . . if a practice person, would be liable to the claimant . . . may be prosecuted subject to the limitations specified in this act.”  While truncated, this excerpt from the statute shows that the claim must be for money damages, there must be negligence, and the injury must have been caused by a government employee acting in their official capacity.  Most importantly, the government is only liable if the government actor would have also been liable if he or she was acting as a private individual.

Other limitations apply.  Plaintiffs cannot pursue claims against government officials in their individual capacity.  So, if a police officer causes an accident during the course of patrolling your neighborhood, you cannot bring suit against the police officer.  The lawsuit must be filed against the police department.

Damages are also limited by the statute.  Lawsuits against one state entity are limited to $200,000.  Lawsuits against multiple state entities are limited to $300,000.  Plaintiffs may not make a claim for punitive damages, or interest that accrued prior to filing their lawsuit.

Finally, there are special limits on the amount of time plaintiffs have to bring their claim.  Plaintiffs normally have four years to file their negligence claims.  Under the sovereign immunity statute in Florida, plaintiffs have three years to file their claim.

If you or a family member have suffered injury at the hands of a government entity, call Bryan W. Crews today.  Navigating claims against the government and understanding the special sovereign immunity rules can be difficult.  Bryan W. Crews, an Orlando personal injury attorney, will put his years of experience to work for you in order to understand your claim.

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