Can I Sue My Local or State Government?
What to know about bringing personal injury lawsuits against the governmentBy Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on March 21, 2023 Featuring practical insights from contributing attorney Ian T. Baxter
Use these links to jump to different sections:
- What is State & Local Government Law?
- What Is the Doctrine of Sovereign Immunity?
- Modern Limits to Sovereign Immunity: State Tort Claims Acts
- Lawsuits Against the Government: What to Keep in Mind
- What Kind of Lawyer Do I Need?
In most cases involving personal injury or property damage, private parties such as individuals or businesses are at fault. The person who suffered injuries can bring a lawsuit against them for compensation.
But what happens if the responsible party isn’t another individual or business but a government entity? Can you sue your state or local government?
The short answer to this question is: Yes. The full answer is more complicated.
Historically, thanks to a legal doctrine known as sovereign immunity, citizens were not allowed to sue the government at all unless the government consented to be sued. Now, states have passed laws waiving or limiting sovereign immunity, allowing citizens to bring civil lawsuits against the government in certain circumstances.
This article will give a basic overview of the requirements for suing the government if you have been harmed. Since the laws that allow citizens to sue their state or local government are complex and can vary significantly from one jurisdiction to another, it’s essential to get expert legal help if you are considering legal action.
What is State & Local Government Law?
“State and local government law is a fairly amorphous term,” says Ian T. Baxter, a personal injury attorney at Post & Schell in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
“From my practice perspective, I’m generally defending municipalities when, for example, a suit is brought because of an injury on a township piece of property.”
However, “State and local government law goes beyond personal injury lawsuits. It really touches on every citizen of the United States in some capacity,” from enacting laws and regulations to maintaining infrastructure and public services.
Who Represents State and Local Government in Legal Matters?
“Generally, the state government will be defended by the attorney general’s office, whereas local-level municipalities often don’t have legal departments to defend their interests,” says Baxter.
He adds that larger cities such as Philadelphia also have legal departments with attorneys who can defend the city in a lawsuit. “These legal departments can handle a huge variety of legal subject matter. That doesn’t mean they won’t outsource in certain circumstances, but in large part, they’re keeping things in-house.”
Unlike large cities’ legal departments, “Local governments typically have an attorney (called a ‘solicitor’ in Pennsylvania) who is familiar with municipal law regulations,” Baxter says.
“Because they have a generalized practice, a solicitor doesn’t necessarily have the expertise to handle every single issue that arises in litigation. So, when talking about smaller local governments, they generally use outside counsel to defend against lawsuits. That [legal representation] is often covered by insurance policies that the municipality must have by statute.”
What Is the Doctrine of Sovereign Immunity?
Sovereign immunity is the idea that citizens can’t bring a civil lawsuit against the government without the government’s consent.
This may sound bizarre. After all, if a government entity or employee has injured somebody, shouldn’t that person be able to get compensation through a lawsuit? But under sovereign immunity, the government can simply refuse to be sued. Why is that?
One of the main rationales for sovereign immunity is that if government officials could be sued, it would hinder them from performing their duties and deter individuals from entering public service.
More generally, it would undercut the government’s ability to govern.
“If you take a step back and think about the purpose of local and state government as a tax-funded conglomerate of citizens, immunity [makes sense because it allows the government] to prioritize things that benefit citizens as a whole rather than [redirecting] taxpayer resources to lawsuits,” explains Baxter.
“I think the citizenry can appreciate that you don’t want to bankrupt your local government. You don’t want all your tax money going to individual lawsuits while you forget the roads and infrastructure.”
Ultimately, “A local government has a finite set of resources provided by the taxpayer and needs to budget appropriately. That’s why having a degree of immunity extended to local governments is important. You don’t want them to act with impunity, and that’s not what these acts do. Instead, they’re designed to provide some limitations, acknowledging the finite resources that local governments are bound by.”
So, does that mean you can’t sue the government if you’ve been harmed? No. Over the course of the twentieth century, states have enacted laws waiving or limiting sovereign immunity, allowing citizens to sue the government in various circumstances.
Modern Limits to Sovereign Immunity: State Tort Claims Acts
In 1946, Congress enacted the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA). By allowing citizens to bring civil lawsuits against the federal government and federal employees in certain circumstances, the FTCA was a significant departure from the traditional doctrine of sovereign immunity.
Many states have followed suit, passing their own Tort Claims Acts to waive or limit their sovereign immunity, allowing citizens to bring civil lawsuits against the government in state court. State laws vary regarding the extent of their limitation of sovereign immunity, the process that citizens must follow to sue the government, and the types and extent of damages that citizens can get in a lawsuit.
Baxter gives the process in Pennsylvania as an example:
“There’s a six-month notice period. So, within six months of having sustained some tortious injury, the local government must be placed on notice. Failure to do so may operate as a bar to the claim, much like a statute of limitations. The notice requirement isn’t technically a bona fide statute of limitations, but practically speaking, it operates that way.”
Assuming you meet the notice requirement, you must “satisfy one of the statute’s enumerated exceptions [to immunity]. Then, you can proceed with your claim.”
Exceptions to immunity under Pennsylvania’s Tort Claims Act (PTCA) include:
- Vehicle liability for the operation of any motor vehicle in the possession or control of a Commonwealth party
- Dangerous conditions on Commonwealth real estate, including sidewalks and highways
- Sexual abuse committed by a Commonwealth party
In proving your claim under the PTCA, “You have to demonstrate and prove by a preponderance of the evidence that there’s causation between the claimed condition set forth in one of the exceptions and the ultimate injury in question,” adds Baxter.
Lawsuits Against the Government: What to Keep in Mind
“There are statutory requirements that a claimant must satisfy to bring a successful lawsuit against a governmental entity,” Baxter says. The specific steps you have to take vary by state and local law.
In general, here are some things you want to be mindful of:
- What is your claim? Is your claim allowed by your state’s tort claims act? What must you prove in your negligence claim to win a lawsuit?
- Who are you suing? Are you suing the state or the local government? Are you suing a specific state agency or multiple agencies? Are you suing a specific government employee rather than an agency or governmental body?
- What forms are required? Generally, individuals seeking to sue the government must submit notice, sending the specified notice claim form via certified mail, submitting it online, or presenting the form in person to the parties you plan to sue. Your state law may prescribe other methods for giving notice. Be sure you’re aware of any required documentation.
- What is the time limit? If you miss the deadline to file notice, you will be barred from taking legal action. Be sure to act in a timely manner.
- What damages can you get? The amount of damages is a critical factor in deciding whether or not to sue. How has the state limited the damages in lawsuits against the government? Is it worth bringing the lawsuit based on what you could win? What types of damages does the state allow–economic, non-economic, or punitive damages?
What Kind of Lawyer Do I Need?
The type of lawyer you should get “depends on the circumstances giving rise to the claim,” says Baxter.
“If I’m injured on a piece of government property, and I’m a prudent plaintiff, then I’m seeking an attorney with experience suing for personal injury claims. If the police violated my civil rights, I would try to find a good civil rights attorney.”
Regardless of the specific claim, “You need to find someone who has experience bringing that type of claim because there are nuances. There are certain things that, if you’ve never done it before or don’t have any experience in suing governments, you could easily overlook.”
Ultimately, it pays to have an experienced attorney at least review your case and give their expert advice about whether the claim is worth pursuing.
Questions for an Attorney
Many personal injury attorneys offer free consultations for potential clients, or they may count consultation fees toward their legal services. Initial consultations let you get legal advice and strategize your next steps.
To get the most out of a meeting, ask a lawyer informed questions such as:
- What are your attorney’s fees and billing options?
- Does my state allow lawsuits against local government agencies or employees?
- Can I bring a personal injury case against my local government?
- Can I sue a police officer or other government official?
- Before suing the local government, what steps do I need to take?
- What is the timeframe for filing a lawsuit?
- What damages are available in a lawsuit? Is there a limit on damages?
Once you have met with a lawyer and gotten your questions answered, you can begin an attorney-client relationship.
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