Sovereign Immunity

September 22, 2017
Posted in Litigation
Sovereign Immunity

In Pennsylvania, there is a difference between suing a private citizen and suing a municipality — such as a township or city — and even the State of Pennsylvania as governmental entities. Municipalities and Pennsylvania are afforded what is called “sovereign immunity.” The Doctrine of Sovereign Immunity dates back to ancient Rome but was predominant in the feudal and monarchy systems of England. Sovereign immunity is commonly associated with the phrase “the king can do no wrong,” in which case the monarch could not make wrong decisions even though those decisions may harm individuals. Since the king was the head of his lands and therefore the head of the courts, monarchs could not therefore be sued and were otherwise immune from personal liability. This societal reality was augmented by the notion of the Divine Right of Kings, which put monarchs above the law, for a king was in fact the law-giver appointed by God and therefore was immune from lawsuits by his subjects.

Although this notion of sovereign immunity in an absolute form has been eroded, it still exists and in Pennsylvania there are two statutes that allow for lawsuits under certain conditions against both municipality and the state of Pennsylvania. Under the statute that relates to the state, the following claims for damages can be brought, and there can be no defense of sovereign immunity:

  1. Vehicle liability
  2. Medical professional liability
  3. Care, custody or control of personal property
  4. Commonwealth real estate highways and sidewalks
  5. Potholes and other dangerous conditions
  6. Care, custody or control of animals
  7. Liquor store sales
  8. National Guard activities
  9. Toxoids and vaccines

As to equal agencies or municipalities, the following acts by public employees may result in liability for which lawsuits can be brought:

  1. Vehicle liability
  2. Care, custody or control of personal property
  3. Real property
  4. Trees, traffic controls and street lighting
  5. Utility service facilities
  6. Streets
  7. Sidewalks
  8. Care, custody or control of animals

Even though lawsuits can be brought under these acts, there is still a limit and a cap on recovery. As to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, a maximum of only $250,000 is available and will be awarded even though a jury may find the value of injuries far exceeds that amount. And the exposure of a local agency or municipality is capped at $500,000.

So even though a Pennsylvania resident can bring an action against either a municipality or the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for those certain acts outlined above, there are still limitations with the Doctrine of Sovereign Immunity yet alive and well.

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