Sovereign Immunity: How and When You Can Sue the State
We often hear in the news about people who sue the government, or how the government owes people money when a government agency is found to be negligent and to have caused a victim’s injuries. But we often take that fact for granted—because in many countries, it is actually forbidden to sue the government.
The History of Sovereign Immunity
In fact the system that our legal system comes from, in England, historically did make it impossible to sue the government (called the “sovereign,” or “The King”) even if the government negligently caused people’s injuries. But many states, including Florida, and even the federal government, have said that yes, American citizens can sue the government—but only in limited situations.
Limits on Damages
The first thing to remember is that when you sue the State of Florida, you are limited to recovering a maximum damage award of $200,000 or $300,000 “per incident.” These may sound like large numbers, but in reality, they aren’t. People with catastrophic injuries, or for victims who have had to undergo multiple surgeries, that $200,000 can be taken up just by medical costs and expenses.
And the $300,00 “per incident” is an even worse limitation. For example, if a government worker causes a car accident and there are 5 people in the car, and they sue the government and get the maximum damages allowable, they all must share $300,000 (or $60,000 each), which again, sounds like a lot, but between medical expenses, lost wages, and other types of damages, in more significant cases, the $60,000 can fall very much short of what the victims would need.
This is, in fact, a terrible problem the families of the victims of the Parkland shooting had when they tried to sue the government—despite a total of 34 kids that were killed or injured, all of them were left to share the $300,000 “per incident” cap, which came to just under $9,000 each.
You can ask the Florida Legislature to award more than the statutory amount. But that is hard to do, and legislators are often hesitant to award significant dollars to victims of the government’s negligence.
Operational Level Decisions
You also can only sue the government for implementing what it does, negligently. You cannot sue it for making a careless or negligent decision.
So, for example, you could sue the government if it didn’t service a broken traffic light that showed green on both sides of traffic, thus causing an accident. But you could not sue the government because it failed to put a traffic light in any particular intersection—that’s a decision the government makes, and no matter how negligent, you cannot sue the government for these kinds of planning level decisions.
Injured by something the government or a government agency or employee did? Contact our Tampa personal injury lawyers at Barbas, Nunez, Sanders, Butler & Hovsepian and schedule a consultation today.