Sovereign Immunity- An Untouchable Entity or Not?

An appellate court in Pennsylvania recently overturned a jury verdict in favor of a plaintiff who was injured by a police officer during a traffic stop.  On November 27, 2013, Shiretta Justice was pulled over by state trooper Joseph Lombardo on Interstate 76 in Philadelphia.  The officer issued Ms. Justice citations for driving on a suspended license and failure to use a turn signal.  An altercation ensued between Ms. Justice and Trooper Lombardo, during which Ms. Justice suffered injuries to her arm, wrist, and back.

Each party blamed the other for the altercation.  The officer claimed that Ms. Justice was uncooperative and resistant, while Ms. Justice contended that the officer had a “nasty demeanor” and used excessive force. Ultimately, the jury found in favor of Ms. Justice on several claims, including assault and battery.  The jury awarded Ms. Justice $160,000.00 in damages. After the verdict, the trial court denied the officer’s motion to set aside the verdict and enter judgment in his favor.

On appeal, however, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court held that the trial court improperly denied the officer’s motion for judgment in his favor.  In the opinion written by Senior Judge Dan Pellegrini the appellate court stated that the officer is protected by sovereign immunity, even if his use of force caused intentional harm to Ms. Justice.  In the Court’s own words,

Whether his conduct was reasonable or not, intentional or not, tortious or not, carried out for an improper motive or not, are all irrelevant because Trooper Lombardo’s use of force in placing Ms. Justice’s hands behind her back and “wrestling” with her to apply handcuffs was of the same general nature as that authorized or incidental to the conduct authorized, and use of force, in general, by State Troopers is not unexpected.

Sovereign immunity is the legal principle that prevents the government from being sued without its consent. Sovereign immunity, and related doctrines, “immunize” departments, agencies, and employees of Federal and state governments against lawsuits unless the government has otherwise consented to being sued.  Fortunately, the Federal government and the governments of many states, including Georgia, have enacted laws that waive sovereign immunity and subject the government to suit under certain circumstances.

The Federal government passed the Federal Tort Claims Act, which states that the government can be sued “for injury or loss of property, or personal injury or death caused by the negligent or wrongful act or omission of any employee of the Government while acting within the scope of his office or employment, under circumstances where the United States, if a private person, would be liable to the claimant in accordance with the law of the place where the act or omission occurred.”

Similarly, Georgia enacted the Georgia Tort Claims Act, which provides that “the state waives its sovereign immunity for the torts of state officers and employees while acting within the scope of their official duties or employment and shall be liable for such torts in the same manner as a private individual or entity would be liable under like circumstances . . . .”  Like the Federal Tort Claims Act, the Georgia Tort Claims Act states that “the state shall have no liability for losses resulting from conduct on the part of state officers or employees which was not within the scope of their official duties or employment.”

In theory, both the FTCA and the GTCA subject the government to claims involving damage to persons or property as if the government was a private individual or company.  But, both the FTCA and the GTCA have numerous exceptions and limitations that do not apply to private individuals or entities. In reality, these exceptions and limitations can make suing the government considerably more difficult and complex than filing a lawsuit against a private individual or company.

Given the difficulties and complexities that often accompany lawsuits against the state or Federal government, people who have been injured by government employees are well-advised to seek the help of an experienced personal injury attorney.  Although these cases can be difficult, personal injury attorneys can help injured people to navigate the difficulties and complexities and ultimately obtain fair compensation.

2018-02-27T11:47:53+00:00