What is sovereign immunity?

While many focus on landlords for premises liability, it is actually far more common for individuals to experience injury on public property rather than private property. A good example of this is an injury caused by a malfunctioning traffic light or an obscured stop sign. Another extremely common injury is somebody slipping and falling on a publicly-owned piece of sidewalk.

However, trying to make a claim against the government is very different than making one against a private entity. According to FindLaw, the government possesses a level of sovereign immunity, and this can make it difficult to sue the government for premises liability.

What is the history of federal sovereign immunity? 

Prior to 1946, it was not possible to sue for wrongful death, property damage or personal injury caused by the federal government or its employees: it had complete immunity. However, in 1946, Congress enacted the Federal Tort Claims Act. This allowed individuals recourse to sue the government in certain situations.

Under the FTCA, claimants can only receive money damages up to a certain amount. It is not possible to press criminal charges.

What if I wish to bring a claim against a state?

Bringing a liability claim against a state or municipal government entity depends on that state or jurisdiction’s particular rules. There are some states that hold stronger immunity than others when it comes to liability claims.

In certain cases, the courts limit the immunity of the state in the instance of “special defects.” For example, if there is a major storm that knocked trees into the road, the courts may hold the government liable for any injuries as a result of that if the government knew about the issue and did not rectify it.