Articles Posted in Government Liability

Earlier this month, an appellate court in California issued a written opinion in a case brought by the surviving family members of a man who was killed in an auto-pedestrian accident against the city where the accident occurred. In the case, Gonzales v. City of Atwater, the court reversed the lower court’s decision not to apply governmental design immunity, holding that the government met its burden to establish immunity. As a result, the $3.2 million verdict in favor of the plaintiffs was reversed.

The Facts of the Case

Gonzales was struck and killed in an auto-pedestrian accident occurring at an intersection in the City of Atwater. The surviving family members filed a personal injury lawsuit against both the driver of the truck that struck Gonzales as well as against the City of Atwater. The jury determined that the driver of the truck was not at fault and that the city was fully responsible for the accident, due to the dangerous design of the intersection. The jury awarded the plaintiffs $3.2 million.

The city repeatedly argued at various times throughout the trial that the case against it should be dismissed because it was entitled to immunity through the doctrine of governmental design immunity. Specifically, the city argued that it relied on a 2001 study it had commissioned to determine how to safely design the intersection before constructing the roads at the intersection. The trial court denied all of the city’s motions to dismiss, and a jury eventually issued a verdict in favor of the plaintiffs for $3.2 million.

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Due to its proximity to the nation’s capital, Virginia sees a higher-than-average number of lawsuits with government entities, officials, or employees being named as defendants. That being the case, it is important for personal injury plaintiffs to understand the concept of governmental immunity and how the legal doctrine can come into play in a personal injury case.

Governmental Immunity Acts to Protect Government Employees in Some Situations

Under the long-standing doctrine of governmental immunity, a state or local government cannot face legal liability for the acts of its agencies or employees unless it consents to the lawsuit. Statutory law outlines some situations in which governments automatically consent to lawsuits brought against them, such as in cases of willful or intentional misconduct. However, in cases involving acts of negligence, government agencies will generally not consent to be named as a defendant.

This is where the doctrine of government immunity becomes complicated. Immunity only attaches to acts that are considered discretionary in nature. For those other acts that are ministerial, meaning there is a certain way that the act is supposed to be carried out, government immunity will not attach. This is where much of the litigation takes place in many lawsuits brought against government defendants. A recent case illustrates this point.

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Earlier this month, a state appellate court issued a written opinion in a premises liability lawsuit brought by a man who was permanently paralyzed after he dove into a state-owned pond, breaking his neck. In the case, Roy v. State, the court ultimately dismissed the plaintiff’s claim against the government, based on the state’s recreational use statute.

Recreational Use Statutes in General

A recreational use statute is a legislatively enacted law that acts to prevent injured accident victims from holding certain property owners financially responsible. Specifically, the recreational use statute grants immunity to those who open their land for the general enjoyment of the public. In order for the doctrine to apply, the landowner must not be receiving a fee from the people using the land.

In Virginia, the recreational use statute requires qualifying property owners to remain free of liability for any dangerous condition on their land unless the owner acts with “gross negligence” or a “willful or malicious failure to guard or warn against a dangerous condition.”

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Generally speaking, governments and government agencies are immune from personal injury lawsuits. However, there are several very important exceptions. First, a government can always consent to be named in a lawsuit if, for example, it believes that doing so is in the best interest of the public. There are also some situations in which a government can statutorily waive immunity, meaning that the legislature determines, in advance, when governments should be held liable, and it can codify these situations in various state statutes.

Another method of getting around government immunity is showing that the allegedly negligent act was a “ministerial” task, rather than a “discretionary” one. To be sure, the distinction between ministerial and discretionary tasks can be slight and is often confusing. But at its most basic level, the difference between the two is that a discretionary task is one that the government can decide how to carry out. A ministerial task is one that is routine and leaves the government no discretion in how to carry out the task. A recent case illustrates the distinction.

Mississippi Transportation Commission v. Adams

Adams passed away after crashing his motorcycle on a Mississippi highway that was under construction. According to the court’s written opinion, Adams accidentally entered a construction zone and then, as he attempted to exit the zone, lost control on some uneven pavement. His estate filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the government agency in charge of maintaining the highway. The allegation was that the road lines leading up to the construction zone were confusing to motorists, permitting them to enter the zone inadvertently.

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Earlier this month, the Nebraska Supreme Court issued an opinion in a personal injury case brought against a local government, alleging that the negligence of a government employee resulted in the plaintiff’s injuries. In the case, Moreno v. City of Gering, the government admitted that its employee was at fault in the accident, but it contested the amount of damages sought by the plaintiff. Thus, the case proceeded to trial on the damages issue only.

The Facts

The plaintiff was injured after she was ejected from a bus. Apparently, the woman was riding in a county bus when a volunteer fire-fighter negligently struck the bus. After a trial in front of a judge, the plaintiff was awarded about $575,000. Some of the damages award was designated to cover the cost of a surgery the plaintiff underwent after the accident.

Government Immunity Can Be Waived

Government immunity acts to protect state and local governments from liability in some situations. However, even if a government is entitled to immunity, that government will not necessarily assert its immunity to prevent the plaintiff’s recovery. In some cases, as was the case above, the government recognizes that an employee’s negligence resulted in harm to a member of the public, and the government wants to make things right.

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The Supreme Court of the State of North Carolina recently released an interesting decision that reversed a lower state appellate court ruling that had allowed a personal injury claim based on an accident with a school bus to proceed against school administrators. The plaintiff in the case of Irving v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education was injured while she was driving a car that was struck by a bus transporting student athletes and staff to a football game. Although the plaintiff’s claim has been rejected on jurisdictional grounds, she may still be entitled to relief through a separate action.

The Plaintiff Is Injured in an Accident with a School Bus Driven by a School Employee and Makes a Claim for Damages

In October 2007, the plaintiff’s car was struck by a school activity bus that was transporting student athletes and staff to a football game. The bus was being driven by an employee of the board of education, the defendant in this case. Rather than filing an accident lawsuit in state court, the plaintiff attempted to follow the procedures to sue a school district over a bus driver’s negligence, and she filed a claim against the defendant with the North Carolina Industrial Commission. The plaintiff made an administrative claim with the Industrial Commission because North Carolina law requires claims against allegedly negligent public school bus drivers to be pursued in this manner.

The School Board Argues the Bus Was a “School Activity Bus,” not a “Public School Bus”

When the case reached the Industrial Commission, the defendant argued there was no jurisdiction for the Commission to hear the claim. The defendant contended that the state law distinguishes between negligence claims involving “public school buses” (which must be filed before the commission) and claims involving “school activity buses” (which may be filed in state court). The district court and state supreme court agreed with the defendant, finding that the Industrial Commission was only the proper venue for claims involving public school buses that take students to and from school during regular school hours. Although the plaintiff will not obtain relief through her action filed with the Industrial Commission, she may be able to refile the claim in district court.

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In a decision recently released by the Supreme Court of Iowa, the dismissal of a woman’s wrongful death lawsuit against the state was reversed. The plaintiff in the case of McFadden v. Iowa Department of Transportation alleged that her husband was killed in a crash while driving his motorcycle on a state road that had not been maintained to an adequate standard. She also claimed that the Department of Transportation’s negligence in failing to maintain the road should result in the state government’s liability for his wrongful death.

The Plaintiff’s Husband Dies in a Tragic Accident

The accident that resulted in the filing of the lawsuit occurred on April 25, 2012 in Warren County, Iowa. According to the initial complaint, the man was driving his motorcycle on the highway when he encountered unsafe road conditions while negotiating a curve. The plaintiff claims that her husband was then forced to drive onto the shoulder, where a steep drop off between the roadway and the shoulder caused him to lose control of his motorcycle, after which he was killed. After her husband’s death, the woman sued the Department of Transportation for negligence and wrongful death for failing to maintain the road to a safe standard.

The Trial Court Rejected Her Claim as Improperly Filed, But the State Supreme Court Disagreed

Since the plaintiff was making a claim against a state agency, she was required to follow strict procedures that the legislature established for victims of governmental negligence to collect damages from the state. Generally, the same rules of liability do not apply to governments and their subdivisions as to members of the public, since governments have traditionally been immune from negligence lawsuits under a legal doctrine known as “sovereign immunity.” Iowa passed laws limiting the state’s sovereign immunity but enacted strict procedures that must be followed for a plaintiff to have an injury or wrongful death case heard by the court.

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